College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #980 to #977

iggy party

980. Iggy Pop, Party (1981)

Arista Records executives held onto some bizarre ideas about which performers were likely to stride purposefully into sudden crossover commercial success. As I noted a couple weeks ago, the label badgered Lou Reed through the latter half of the nineteen-seventies because his brand of understated, strung-out rock poetry wasn’t connecting with kids who wanted to disco their nights away. Around the same time, they were heaping the same impatient grievances on Reed’s kindred iconoclast and occasional compadre Iggy Pop.

Pop was evidently charged with coming up with an album that would justify the investment Arista made — or at least felt they’d made — in him. To a degree, Pop acquiesced, holing up with Ivan Kral — a guitarist who’d spent some time working with Patti Smith — and trying to come up with material that, befitting the title eventually bestowed on the album, had something of a loose, party vibe.

Party, though, is a dismal affair, irredeemably sloppy rather than spirited and playful. “Rock and Roll Party” is an emblematic tracks, marked by a recycled riff Pop could have cracked off while in a deep slumber and lyrics that sound like a bad first draft (“As I walked into the rock and roll club/ I found myself with the usual bums”). Pop was never going to contend with Bob Dylan to be the first rock lyricist to earn a Nobel Prize, but the words are especially clunky here. “Sincerity” is almost abstract anti-journalism about a beer run (once again made yet more flaccid by a dull repeated riff) and “Pumpin’ for Jill” features the deeply mortal lyrics “When I’m asleep, you touch my feet/ You let me know that I am no creep.” At least the latter song also features lines that are about as close as Pop ever gets to sweet, summoning up his best Reed-style cool romanticism to sing, “I met you out at the Mardi Gras/ On a French Quarter sidewalk/ When you kissed me, it was strong/ I wonder if you’ll hear this song.”

Predictably, the label was unimpressed with the tracks Pop turned over, going so far as to hire former Monkees collaborator Tommy Boyce (who, to be fair, wrote some pretty damn great songs with Bobby Hart) to take a pass at the material, resulting in a highly dressed up version of a song called “Bang Bang,” which managed a gentle but visible ripple on the Billboard dance chart. He didn’t make the song good, exactly, but its better than, say, the album’s indifferent pass at ska, with “Happy Man,” and the two drab covers that close the album.

By practically all measures, Party was a dud. Mike Page, bassist in Pop’s backing band at the time, offered the correct assessment years later. “It stood for everything Iggy tore down.”

And it didn’t salvage his relationship with Arista, either. After Party, he was off the label.

 

jason still

979. Jason and the Scorchers, Still Standing (1986)

Well before the internet was around to accelerate the hype-fueled rise and fall of musical artists, there were plenty of bands that fell prey to the burden of sky high expectations. Arguably, Jason and the Scorchers were one of them.

Formed in Nashville, the band led by singer-guitarist Jason Ringenberg was quickly renowned for their turbo-charged live shows. Merging rock propulsion with country authenticity, Jason and the Scorchers played their first gigs in 1981 and were signed to EMI America within two years, releasing their major label debut and first full-length album, Lost and Found, in 1985. Yet more critical acclaim followed, but sales were middling.

For the band’s sophomore effort, they were paired with producer Tom Werman, who’d previous overseen some of Cheap Trick’s biggest (and also most obnoxious) hits. In closer chronological proximity to his work with Jason and the Scorchers, Werman had been instrumental in foisting the scourge of hair metal onto the world. The label bosses surely hoped Werman would give the album the sort of sheen that MTV — and eagerly following radio programmers — found irresistible in the mid-nineteen-eighties, but the mismatch between performer and producer is clear.

Even so, Jason and the Scorchers were a solid enough outfit that their appeal often breaks through on Still Standing. “Crashin’ Down” is straightforward honky tonk goodness, and “Take Me to Your Promised Land” is one of those earthy epics that represents the best of rock bands taking advantage of extra studio time. And there’s still room for little quirks of personality, such as the yodel-adjacent trill that shows up in Ringernberg’s vocals toward the end of the fiery “Shotgun Blues.” The overly-eager cover of a familiar Rolling Stones hit even works better than it should, taking on a romping, slyly fun spirit. It’s less convincing when the band slows down, as on the ballad “Good Things Come to Those Who Wait.” Werman’s lucrative instinct for artifice takes over.

Once again, the reception was more muted than expected, with some of the critical support eroding. That seemed to put a dent in the band’s creative energy, as well. It would be three years before their next — and, for a time, final — album.

 

lake

978. Greg Lake, Greg Lake (1981)

When Greg Lake release his self-titled solo debut, he had stints in two different iconic prog rock bands on his resume. He was one of the founding members of King Crimson and made up one third of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Plus, he had an annual windfall because he’d figured out the British rocker secret to eternal financial stability and penned a Christmas song. (The inescapable holiday atrocity “Wonderful Christmastime,” which Paul McCartney released four years after Lake’s hit, nets him an estimated $400,000 in royalties every year, for example.) Lake surely had plenty of reasons for putting together a solo record, but he had no real need to cement a legacy.

It’s to Lake’s benefit that there was nothing particular to prove. Fully acknowledging that tastes vary — and 1981 was sonically a very different time for rock ‘n’ roll — it’s difficult to imaging many sparking to devoted fandom on the basis of the tracks residing on Greg Lake.

Album opener “Nuclear Attack,” with a songwriting credit and flaring guitar solo for Thin Lizzy axeman Gary Moore, set the thudding tone. Much as the quasi-Tolkien, florid imagery of prog rock workouts rightfully earned scorn, those cacophonies of complicated words are far preferable to the inanity of “And you’ll never come back/ From a nuclear attack.” Bad lyrics prevail across the album, occasionally tripping into the overtly creepy, as on dreadful ballad “Let Me Love You Once,” which finds Lake insisting, “Your eyes keeping saying yes to me/ So don’t keep saying no.” At least “Someone” is mildly intriguing because of its fever dream lounge act aura and oddball litanies of modern angst: “Someone”s on the meat rack/ Looking far too young/ Runnin’ from a police trap/ Feelin’ highly strung.”

The album’s chief curiosity is “Love You Too Much,” an unfinished song Bob Dylan sent over for Lake to polish off (after evidently abandoning it following a couple of on-stage workouts). Lake — perhaps helplessly — adopts a little bit of a nasal Dylan trill and he sings. Meanwhile, Moore offers another intricate-to-the-point-of-being-exhausting guitar solo. It’s straightforward enough to be a little square, which absolutely means it fares better than a bolder track such as “Black and Blue,” which occasionally has the odd sound of some mythical classic rock music box that was left outside in a drenching rain.

There was only one more solo studio album from Lake: Manoeuvres, released in 1983. He clearly decided his time was better served as a member of a band, or at least mining his own history. He was undoubtedly correct in that assessment.

 

iggy soldier

977. Iggy Pop, Soldier (1980)

The making of Soldier, Iggy Pop’s fifth studio album and his second for Arista, was a messy affair. That might help explain why it’s so good. Is there any performer who seems more at home amidst clatter and chaos?

That’s not to imply that Soldier is some classic. By its very nature, it careens between peaks and valleys. Opening track “Loco Mosquito” is nutso in al the best ways, implying that this record might go just about anywhere.  From the beginning, Pop launches straight into the happily reckless lunacy, barking, “My mommy told me/ If I were goody/ That she would buy me/ A rubber dolly,” as the music settles into a groove that David Bowie might have devised were he enlisted to score a haunted calliope.

This was indeed the point when Bowie was practically serving as career caretaker to Pop, though some accounts suggest the rock god’s presence may have contributed to the tumult in the studio, notably the departure of former Stooges member James Williamson from the producer role after a well-regarded collaboration with Pop on his old cohort’s previous album, New Values, released in 1979. Even if there are some Bowie fingerprints to be found, Soldier just feels like Pop cutting loose.

“Knocking ‘Em Down (In the City)” has the confident, tuneful insolence of Pop’s work with the Stooges, and even if the political swipe “I’m a Conservative” hardly represents the most artful commentary, it remains apt nearly three decades later (“I got bored so I’m making my millions/ When you’re conservative you get a better break”). “Dog Food” is ragged and shamelessly, deliriously dopey, even if it is creepy to hear Pop mention his 14-year-old girlfriend, Betsy. (She was still on his mind ten years later, serving as the inspiration for “Candy,” one of Pop’s better solo songs and bigger hits.) The splattering sonics of the album further serve to accentuate the strength of the best, most smartly crafted songs, especially the lean, snarling “I Need More.”

Soldier sounds good to me now, but it didn’t have the desired chart impact in 1980, putting Pop in a precarious place with his label. That led to, well, the album up above in this post, perched at #980.

 

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 — #984 to #981

ub40 1980

984. UB40, 1980-1983 (1983)

The early nineteen-eighties was a good time to be dishing out gentle, reggae-influenced pop in the U.K. The band UB40 started germinating around 1978, when Ali Campbell took the compensatory award he received after enduring a physical assault and put it towards securing musical instruments for a bunch of his school chums. The first true live gig for UB40 took place in early 1979, and their first single — a double A-side featuring “King” and “Food for Thought” — was in shops within about a year.

The embrace in their homeland was warm and immediate, but UB40 struggled to make headway in the U.S., at least until a covers album in 1983 contained a slow-building smash. The attention from North American audiences might have been slow to come, but the band’s label for those territories seemed to think the chance for a breakthrough was there in 1983. In addition to covers album Labour of Love, A&M Records released a compilation dubbed 1980-1983. Though UB40’s singles were reasonably well represented, it was questionable to term the album a “greatest hits,” since one half of the band’s tracks to make it into the Top 10 in the U.K. were nowhere to be heard on the album.

The previously mentioned “King” and “Food for Thought” were present, as was “One in Ten,” which peaked at #7 after it was released as a single in 1981. Though pulled together from multiple releases, the compilation has a unmistakable low idle, island grove, whether on the cautionary tale “Don’t Do the Crime” or the slightly more loping “Present Arms.” The material is obviously accomplished within its genre, but there’s only so much creativity that can be mustered within these fairly tight musical confines.

 

Dogandbutterfly

983. Heart, Dog & Butterfly (1978)

As I’ve previously shared, Heart’s fourth studio album enjoyed an impressively strong showing on the very first CMJ album chart, included in a prototype issue of the trade publication birthed in late 1978. CMJ co-founder Bobby Haber assembled the chart from the playlists of college radio stations all over the country, but it’s fair to say that the student broadcasters weren’t pushing into territory all that different from their brethren stocking the airwaves from commercial portions of the FM band. Heart notched a pair of Top 40 singles from Dog & Butterfly: “Straight On” and the title cut.

Dog & Butterfly was an important statement of independence for Heart. It was their first for Portrait Records, a fairly new subsidiary of Columbia Records. To get there, they’d bolted from Mushroom Records, in part because of dissatisfaction with marketing that salaciously played up the attractiveness of Ann and Nancy Wilson, the Seattle sisters who were the creative core of the band. Executives at Mushroom weren’t going to let Heart go without a fight, and extensive legal wrangling culminated with the band grudgingly finishing off one more album for their former corporate master.

Since this was the nineteen-seventies, the album had a veneer concept to it, with the A-side (dubbed “Dog”) stacked with harder rocking tracks (like “High Time,” which almost skews into the ever-treacherous prog rock territory) and the B-side (dubbed “Butterfly”) a little more gentle (a strategy almost stated explicitly on the song “Lighter Touch” ). Although I don’t think the approach is especially calculated, the end result is that listening to Dog & Butterfly is like a primer for what album rock radio sounded like right when it was revolting most emphatically against the disco music dominated the culture.

 

bolshoi party

982. Bolshoi, Lindy’s Party (1987)

When Lindy’s Party, the second full-length from the Bolshoi, was released, a profile of band began in writerly anguish:

God, it’s almost impossible to capture the true essence of a band as defiant of description as the Bolshoi without getting hopelessly lost in the alternative jungle of garbled romanticisms.  

I mean, should I even try?

Hailing from the modest English town Trowbridge, the Bolshoi offered a swirling, driving style of pop music that was the obvious descendent of new wave and edging toward the Brit pop derivation of alternative that briefly ruled college airwaves before Nirvana trundled in and toppled all the shelves. “Please” has an offhand, keening punch to it, and “T.V. Man” is amusing in its counter-culture tilting against the steel-reinforced windmill of pop culture (“One, two, three, hail TV/ Watching Dirty Harry made a man of me”). “Can You Believe It” is one of those tracks that sounds almost conspiratorial in its bratty deconstructionist approach to fussily descriptive lyrics and jalopy thump rhythms. It could only arrive in 1987.

The album is a little less successful when the Bolshoi strains in the direction of a bigger sound, as on “Crack in Smile,” which sounds like warmed over Psychedelic Furs. The band was never going to transform the world, so more modest musical aspirations suited them better. There’s not a thing wrong with that. There are bands that regularly carve out pained masterpieces that could never make a track as immediate — and, I’d argue, irresistible — in its appeal as “Swings and Roundabouts.” (“Ten o’clock, I’m drinking beer/ I don’t know why I come in here/ Well, it’s cold outside, yes, that’s true/ And I don’t really have much else to do” is so perfect a description of about half of my collegiate nights that I can even forgive the song for later rhyming “hero” with “beer, oh.”) If the price to pay is a few garbled romanticisms, it’s worth it.

 

split time

981. Split Enz, Time and Tide (1982)

There’s no doubt that the New Zealand band Split Enz are best known for nifty pop gems, the sort of songs that insinuate their way into the psyche in three minutes flat and lilt away, presumably to Heaven itself. They did bring a unique skill to those sorts of compositions, but the whole truth of their sonic output is a touch more complicated. Formed in 1972, Split Enz were a product of their time, which meant prog rock and blues-soaked epics, and thundering bombast at every opportunity. No matter which songs have endured with the greatest stickiness, all of that other material is part of their character, too.

Time and Tide, though it contains one of those shards of pop perfection in the form of the single “Six Months in a Leaky Boat,” is more notable as a compendium of all of the band’s competing creative instincts. For their seventh studio album, Split Enz worked with producer Hugh Padham, fresh from assisting on the first two solo albums by Phil Collins. That provides a reasonable hint as to the overall feel of the album. Album opener “Dirty Creature” percolates with edgy energy,  “Never Ceases to Amaze Me” slaloms a disco beat around probing rock keyboards, and “Haul Away” sounds as though it was transferred over from the Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake or some other jaunty old rock opera about the undefinable malaise of the British middle class.

Time and Tide is a little all over the place, but that seems to be exactly what Split Enz wanted. If it’s messy, it’s also accomplished and gratifyingly exploratory. It tilts away from expectations just as often as it feeds fan desires. That’s a neat trick.

 

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 — #988 – #985

starship modern

988. Jefferson Starship, Modern Times (1981)

It’s easy — and given the inferior quality of the latter iteration — to view Jefferson Starship as the inconsequential afterthought of Jefferson Airplane, but that group lasted longer and released more albums, even when not including the mid-eighties reinvention as the even more dire Starship. With the release of Modern Times, Jefferson Starship was one album shy of the original total of their ancestor band and had officially spanned one more year as a recording act. In a field that still largely rejected attempts at band longevity, the endurance is impressive. Of course, on Modern Times, that descriptor shouldn’t be applied to anything else.

Grace Slick was back in the fold after briefly splitting from the band, though she basically breezes in and out songs noncommittally. More often, it’s lead singer Mickey Thomas yelping his way through the ludicrous lyrics, such as the full-potency nonsense of “Wildeyes”: “Break the walls I’m in love again/ And even telepathic children have to eat their vegetables.” There are some vestiges of the band’s old hippie vibe, as when guitarist Paul Kantner’s bizarrely retrograde brand of progressive commentary rears its snout on the title cut. That track, like the single “Find You Way Back” tips off the real goal, which is doing a convincing impression of Styx.

Mostly, the album is filled with remarkably dippy material, such as “Mary,” which hinges on the repeated lyric “I’ll never marry Mary,” or “Alien” which is dead serious in asking “Do you know my thoughts?/ Can you read my mind?/ Would you dare to tell me/ What it is you find?” And then there’s album closer “Stairway To Cleveland (We Do What We Want),” which indulges in the time-honored rock star practice of lobbing bratty retorts at the music press that has soured on their creative output. The desire to push back against the withering assessments, but Modern Times inadvertently makes the argument that the critics are right.

 

lou reed growing

987. Lou Reed, Growing Up in Public (1980)

When it comes to fulfilling a tough professional ultimatum, a person could certainly have a worse experience than Lou Reed did when recording his tenth solo album, Growing Up in Public. His label at the time, Arista Records, had reached the point of impatience with Reed (hardly a unique sensation across the legendarily cantankerous performer’s career), somehow expecting significant commercial success was ever a likelihood. A new record was needed, so Reed disembarked to Montserrat, setting up in George Martin’s newly opened AIR Studios for six weeks. Beaches, booze, and beautiful views were at the ready.

The album was co-written by Reed and Michael Fonfara, guitarist and keyboardist in his touring, with the pair engaged in all night sessions that finished with them teaching the songs to the band in the morning. The resulting material feels loose, although Reed and Fonfara give the tracks a thick studio veneer that betrayed the album’s chronological position at the dawn of the nineteen-eighties. It doesn’t exactly sound like Reed is trying to muscle his music onto the pop charts, but material like “Smiles” (thanks in part to its keyboard breaks) almost sounds like he is at the midpoint of polishing it up to turn it over to the E Street Band.

Although Fonfara had a lot of input on the music, the lyrics were all Reed, distinctively so. The title cut is a prime example of Reed’s tendency to shovel in vividly descriptive lyrics full of ten dollar words with only the most casual interest in whether or not they work within the melody. The same is true of “How Do You Speak to an Angel,” which slings up its verbosity against a music tinged with the kind of goth glam perfected by Alice Cooper: “What do you do with your pragmatic passions/ With your classically neurotic style/ How do you deal with your vague self-comprehensions/ What do you do when you lie”

Elsewhere, Reed visits the evergreen topic of rotten fathers on “My Old Man” and offers a small epic of sexual politics at the end of the Me Decade on “So Alone” (“Sure all men are beasts/ Hey, look, I’ll sit here quietly and I’ll stare at my feet/ I don’t blame you for taking umbrage/ With animals staring at your cleavage/ So alone, we’re so all alone”). If the album is a hodgepodge, it’s one created by a terrifically inventive musician and performer. It didn’t give Arista what they wanted, and Reed left the label shortly after its release, openly bashing boss Clive Davis on the way out the door.

 

more specials

986. The Specials, More Specials (1980)

It’s possible the Specials would have preferred a little time off to help start the nineteen-eighties. The band that invented two-tone music, stewing together Reggae influences and punk rock energy, had enjoyed massive success with their self-titled debut, released in 1979, including a climb to the top of the U.K. singles charts with “Too Much Too Young.” They were worn out from touring, but Chrysalis Records wanted new material too keep the record stores well-stocked with product listeners were craving.

Rushing in to the studio, the individual band members kept bringing their own inklings about where to go next musically, leading to an album that retains the feel of the prior release while engaging in fascinating sonic expansions. More Specials opens with a swingin’ ska version of the jazz standard “Enjoy Yourself,” and that nicely sets the tone for what follows. “Do Nothing” demonstrates the wisdom of its title by providing the easiest beat imaginable, made for swaying hammocks, and “Pearl’s Cafe” is wildly good-natured in delivering the lyrics “It’s all a load of bollocks/ And bollocks to it all.” There’s the lounge-a-rama goodness of “I Can’t Stand It,” featuring vocals from Rhoda Dakar, and “Sock It to ‘Em J.B.” is a spirited ode to 007.

The variety on the album is satisfying, but it also represented significant discord within the band. Those hairline cracks became chasms while the Specials toured. By the start of 1981, they forced the layoff they were craving, which foretold a completely fluctuating band identity in the years ahead.

 

thompson daring

985. Richard Thompson, Daring Adventures (1986)

Daring Adventures was Richard Thompson’s second album with Polydor Records. There wasn’t much other continuity in place, as Thompson strayed from longtime producer Joe Boyd — working instead with Mitchell Froom — and recorded the album away from his English homeland. And there was less of the daring confessions of Thompson’s previous work, including his revered collaborations with then-wife Linda Thompson. Instead, Thompson pushed into the literary, crafting smart character studies, such as album closer “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven,” about a British jazz performer who died during a bombing of London in World War II.

Thompson basically marked out territory he’d stay comfortably within for the remainder of his career. The gentle blues of “Missie How You Let Me Down,” the chugging “Cash Down, Never Never,” and the wryly amusing “Nearly in Love” (“I don’t want to cause you doubt/ But I’m really checking you out/ You’re the closest to my heart bar none/ Except for my wallet and my gun”). It also put a sharp pin into Thompson’s typical sales level, which was middling at best. On the U.S. album charts, it peaked at #142, which was right in the middle of the range he’d always stay in, forever denied a true commercial breakthrough.

 

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 — #992 – #989

burnett

992. T Bone Burnett, Proof Through the Night (1983)

In the early nineteen-eighties, T Bone Burnett was a musician of high regard who hadn’t yet broken through. A few years earlier, Burnett earned his keep as a guitar-slinger on Bob Dylan’s much-loved Rolling Thunder Revue. That helped him get enough industry buzz to record and release a couple of solo records, neither of which fully clicked commercially. For many in his sphere, there was an inkling that Proof Through the Night was going to be different.

Taking a distinctly literary approach to his lyrics, Burnett crafted a batch of sober, gently moralizing songs. They yearn to have a stripped down, similar to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, released one year earlier. That’s not really how it worked for an unproven artist at the dawn of the MTV era, though. To Burnett’s dismay, the songs were glossed up by producer Jeff Eyrich, whose sole behind the boards credit to that point was the single “A Million Miles Away,” a minor hit for the Plimsouls. All across Proof Through the Night, it’s very evident there’s a misguided attempt to fluff Burnett’s stark transplanted fictions into something more slickly radio-friendly.

For enough listeners (including Rolling Stone critics, who awarded Burnett Best Songwriter honors in their year-end poll), Burnett’s voice comes through. “When the Night Falls,” written with Roy Orbison in mind, is fairly indicative, coupling evocative lyrics to a melody and song structure that betray a deep appreciation for classic rock ‘n’ roll styles. “Pressure” is a fine honky tonk stomper, and “After All These Years” has a touch of Burnett’s old tour bus compatriot Dylan in its wistful, romantic remembrance.

Elsewhere, the skinned knuckle short story approach of Burnett’s songwriting is a little more troublesome. “Fatally Beautiful” delivers its lyrics about a female who stirred amorous attention her whole life, receiving predatory attention in the process (“She was born in the back of ’34 Ford/ Raised in a foster home/ Her guardian made sexual connection with her/ Before she was even grown”) with an unsettling jauntiness. There’s also the odd spoken word song “Hefner and Disney,” in which Burnett takes particular pleasure is making the latter into a figure of lurid tastes.

Burnett was disappointed enough with the finished product that it took years — decades, really — for Proof Through the Night to make its way onto CD. In the more immediate aftermath, he committed to the idea that, when it came to producing, he knew better. The first Burnett solo records had been self-produced, but now he was ready to serve in that capacity for other artists, signing his name to albums from Leo Kottke and Los Lobos before the year was out.

 

lime volatile

991. Lime Spiders, Volatile (1988)

“Volatile,” the opening track and title cut on the Lime Spiders’ 1988 album, opens with a bellow straight out of the Arthur Brown playbook. To those with a working familiarity with the half-crazed output of the English singer, there could be few better signals as to the blazing, boisterous music to come across two vinyl sides. “I’m out to lunch/ And you know I got a real short fuse,” Mick Blood sings, and it is both warning and conspiratorial celebration.

The Lime Spiders were an Australian band that looped a barbed wire lasso around garage punk and dragged it ruthlessly through the blood-dappled mosh pit of punk rock. The band had already gone through a whole batch of iterations — complete with messy breakups and perilous rejuvenations — by the time they released their debut full-length, The Cave Comes Alive!, in 1987. Less than a year later, Volatile hit record racks.

Given that so much of Volatile is angry rock ‘n’ roll that roars along like a turbo-charged bulldozer, it’s downright jarring — in the best sense of the word — when the music tilts ever so slightly toward a gentler vibe, as on the “The Odyssey,” which is what the Monkees would have dished out had they been a smudged carbon copy of the Who instead of the Beatles. And it’s no surprise that “The Other Side of You” was a single complete with a polished music video. It has the melodic jangle so common in the era, when labels were convinced the easiest way to get their products onto college radio was to make certain the songs could segue comfortable into or out of a chiming R.E.M. jam.

The barroom brawl quality of their music was undeniable, but Lime Spiders also demonstrated a strong command of general tunefulness. “My Main Attraction” is reminiscent of the great pop songs nested in heavy buzz that were Hüsker Dü’s bread and jam, and even the swampy grind of “Test Pattern” slyly shows off a lot of craft.

 

laurie big

990. Laurie Anderson, Big Science (1982)

There are many roads an artist can travel to a comfy major label contract. Befitting the resolutely avant-garde music she created, Laurie Anderson surely had one of the oddest routes to become a member of the Warner Bros. galaxy of stars.

Primarily a performance artist through the nineteen-seventies, Anderson routinely had music as a central component of her pieces, such as Duets on Ice, which found her playing her modified, electrified violin while wearing skates embedded in two blocks of ice.  She even released a few singles with tiny press runs. One of those offerings was inspired by a performance of “O Souverain,” from the 1885 opera El Cid. With a chipper cheekiness that would become a trademark, Anderson created “O Superman,” an abstract rumination on American military force set to a pulsing sample of her own voice. She used a small grant — a mere five hundred dollars — from the National Endowment of the Arts to release it as a single. To surprise of the few people who were paying attention, “O Superman” became a hit, especially in the U.K. where it made it all the way to the runner-up position on the singles chart.

Amazingly, the strange sensation Anderson generated was enough for Warner Bros., which gave her a multi-album deal. Anderson took the money and plunged it into her art, developing the material that would comprise Big Science, her debut album.

Even decades later, Big Science is spectacularly bizarre. Album opener “From the Air” repeats the technique of building Anderson’s vocal samples into a unnervingly unshakable rhythm track. And then she adds swerving horns, as if Anderson found a classic New Orleans brass band on a night of high revelry and corralled them into the studio, keeping them unbalanced with strobe lights as they played. And all that’s before Anderson comes in playing a airline pilot, using blandly lackadaisical tones to instruct the passengers to prepare for a crash landing: “This is your captain, and we are going down/ We are all going down, together/ And I said: ‘Uh oh, this is gonna be some day.”

Understandably, the album lives in a space somewhere between challenging art piece and fun record to play on a Saturday night. No matter where it sits on that continuum, it boasts tracks of grand pop invention (including, of course, “O Superman”). “Born, Never Asked” generates poignant delicacy out of Anderson’s sparking violin, and “Example #22” is spectacular cartoon theme reeling from a gulp of questionable acid.

It remains unclear to me whether or not Warner Bros. knew what they were getting into by bringing Anderson under their banner. There’s got to be some pride, though. There can’t be too many other releases in label history afforded a honored place in the Museum of Modern Art.

 

madness absolutely

989. Madness, Absolutely (1980).

Although their day would come on the U.S. pop charts, the English ska band Madness was met with a strong dose of resistance on this side of the Atlantic as they dished out their early albums. Around the time of the group’s sophomore album, Absolutely, the churlish tastemakers at Rolling Stone mustered up the most scathing insult they could, deeming Madness “the Blues Brothers with English accents.”

Without leveling a judgment on the quality of Absolutely, it’s easy to hear why the songs would hit American ears with a clang. There’s something deeply English about the songs, mostly in the way they seem firmly grounded in the life of row houses and Teddy Boys. Often, the allusions are right there in the lyrics (as with the jittery pop reminiscences of “Baggy Trousers” or the loping “On the Beat Pete,” about a constable with size ten feet). Even when the references aren’t so overt, there’s a prevailing sense that it belongs to a very specific culture, albeit one that blithely appropriated the sound from elsewhere.

Taken on its own terms, there’s dandy material across Absolutely. “Close Escape” boasts an opening so bouncy it should be sung from a careening pogo stick, and the rockabilly pastiche “Solid Gone” taps into London’s retro scene as effectively as other more celebrated artists did.  The loose swing of “Not Home Today” could be an outtake from The Clash’s Sandinista!, which I consider a nosebleed-high compliment. “Shadow of Fear” is arguably the cheeriest song about ghoulish happenings ever recorded, and “You Said” is a splendid shrug of a breakup song (“You said you’re leaving, well that’s okay/ You said you’ve had enough, what can I say?”).

Aside from college radio, none of these songs registered on U.S radio at all. At home in the U.K., Madness racked up a bunch of Top 10 singles. To the blokes in Madness, it probably didn’t matter all that much that the U.S. music writers were slow to find the joy and invention in Absolutely.

 

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 — #996 – #993

scaggs middle

996. Boz Scaggs, Middle Man (1980)

“Say, what do you think/ Of gentlemen wearing mink?,” Boz Scaggs croons on “Jojo,” the lead track on and first single from Middle Man. That’s suitably emblematic of the affected prestige and classiness of the album, the performer’s ninth overall. That thoroughly buffed style had served Scaggs very well on the pop charts in preceding years, especially in the case of the 1976 album Silk Degrees, which went platinum five times over and yielded three Top 40 singles.

The follow-up album, Down Two Then Left, didn’t fare as well on the charts, so Scaggs once again enlisted the backing musicians from Silk Degrees, many of whom had formed the band Toto in the interim. The result is an album that’ undeniably meticulously crafted, arguably a perfect artifact of its time. For good or for ill, it captures the point when the fussy bombast of prog rock settled like silt, leaving behind pop-rock that instead appropriated its aspiring intricacy from fusion jazz. And the likelihood that all the musicians involved would decry disco as an awful betrayal of rock music didn’t mean they weren’t eager to borrow dance music’s production sheen.

This stuff isn’t good. It’s notable only for the flashes of something — anything — even mildly interesting, such the the rich, crisp back-up vocals of ace session singer Rosemary Butler powering past the synths on “Angel You,” or the amusing see-saw guitar solo on “Breakdown Dead Ahead.” It’s even a little entertaining to think of album closer “You Got Some Imagination” as the J. Geils Band trying their best to replicate the sound of Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. The unbearably drippiness of “You Can Have Me Anytime” (“On wings of the night/Once again you’ll take flight”) is more indicative.

 

Magazine Magic

995. Magazine, Magic, Murder, and the Weather (1981)

When it came to record their fourth album, the ground under the band Magazine was a little wobbly. Splendidly inventive guitarist John McGeoch — who was a co-founder of the band with former Buzzcocks frontman Howard Devoto — had departed to join up with Siouxsie and the Banshees. Devoto was having a tricky time filling McGeoch’s slot in the lineup, enlisting Robert Simon, formerly of Ultravox, for live shows before settling on Ben Mandelson by the time the band went into the studio.

For most Magazine fans, the resulting album, Magic, Murder, and the Weather, is the band’s weakest effort. It definitely strays from the previously established jaggedness had mellowed. Album opener “About the Weather” finds the band giving it their best Roxy Music groove swoon (an association accentuated by Devoto’s crooning vocals), but the anxious post-punk beat gives them away. Despite the album’s lackluster reputation, there are interesting tracks to be found on it. “The Honeymoon Killers” features cascading music that sounds like it was designed to accompanying a dizzying waltz sequence in a a colorful, Gothic horror film, and “Come Alive” has a pleasing, Devo-style weirdness.

The album definitely wanders a bit on the second side, picking up an aimlessness that makes it seem as if Devoto and company have already determined the end of the band is near and they’re just playing out the string. “The Great Man’s Secrets” is so repetitive that it becomes numbing, and  “This Poison” strives for icy cool, but has a noodling around quality as Devoto sleepily intones the lyrics.

Several weeks before the album’s release, Devoto decided he could go no further with Magazine. He formally left the band, and the remaining members dissolved Magazine shortly thereafter.

 

jaws

994. Hunters & Collectors, The Jaws of Life (1984)

According to at least one fan with a long memory, the music press initially struggled to describe the sound of early records from the Australian band Hunters & Collecters. One but of phrasing they settled on was “dirty art funk.” That seems about right.

The Jaws of Life, the band’s third album, finds Hunters & Collectors taking that sort of confrontational sound and expanding on it in fascinating ways. The group had nearly broken up prior to this release, but reconvened (with a slightly modified lineup) in part because they felt there was a contribution to be made to the Australian music scene. The thunderous and driving “Holding Down a D” makes for a satisfying statement of purpose, an argument that Hunters & Collectors should be part of the musical dialogue.

That track is indicative of the crafty, expectation-upending rock across the album. “I Couldn’t Give It You” is a howl of agitation delivered from the corner of a battered bar room, as drums pulse angrily and horns sting like hornets. Their cover of the Ray Charles song “I Believe to My Soul” (the title shortened to “I Believe”) finds the band effectively injecting juke joint blues with a distinctive Australian gruffness. “Betty’s Worry or The Slab” sounds a little like Nick Cave hopped up on pep pills, and “Carry Me” is coated in a misty rain of psychedelia.

Released in the U.S. on Slash Records, The Jaws of Life was the band’s proper introduction to most listeners on these shores. It’s a dandy start.

 

new ghost

993. New Model Army, The Ghost of Cain (1986)

Around the time New Model Army released The Ghost of Cain, their third album, the U.S. government officially declared the band’s music had “no artistic merit.” That unusually harsh assessment was provided as justification for denying the band members the necessary visas to tour in the States.

“If this government is actually frightened of what New Model Army might do to American society, then I’d be really pleased,” lead singer Justin Sullivan (who occasionally used the embarrassing stage name Slade the Leveller) told Spin. “I’d love to threaten you that much. I really would.”

Produced by the legendary Glyn Johns, The Ghost of Cain channels politicized punk energy into ten tracks of tuneful, fairly straightforward rock music. The lyrics race right up the point of becoming didactic without ever quite dropping into the pit. Driven largely by a galloping acoustic guitar line, “51 State” is a thrilling, sing-along indictment of their U.K. homeland’s fealty to the geopolitical preferences of the U.S. (Although it feels like a quintessential New Model Army track, it was also a rare instance of the band employing the songwriting talents of an outsider, since Ashley Cartwright, of the band the Shakes, is credited with the lyrics.)  And while “Western Dream” sounds a little like a Big Country song smartly played a few revolutions per minute faster, the chorus delivers more of a punch than the comparison band ever mustered: “All lies, all lies/ All schemes, all schemes/ Every winner means a loser/ In the Western dream.”

It’s not all manifestos set to melodies, however. New Model Army evidences a surprising tenderness on “Lovesongs,” and the aptly named “Ballad” brings both larger and more intimate concerns to its fretting about generational complacency. Still, there’s no denying that radical rabble-rousing is the primary flavor here. The album is like a sly invitation to join the revolution, exemplified by the way “All of This” creeps along restively like a secret delivered in a rush (“The agents issue the statements/ To the waiting press who circulate the words/ Justification propaganda/ Western foreign policy around the world”).

When it came time to tour in support of The Ghost of Cain, New Model Army was able to work through their issues with U.S. Immigration Services. Just how much harm they exacted on American society as a result is unclear.

 

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 — 1000 – 997

falco einzelhaft1000. Falco, Einzelhaft (1982)

In the early nineteen-eighties, German pop music was having a moment in the U.S. That surge in popularity was so pronounced that two different tracks sung in German — Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” — charted comfortably high in the Billboard Top 40. In each case, the artists also released English language versions, but the originals, delivered in their mother tongue, also enjoyed significant airplay on commercial radio.

Falco (the performing name of Johann Hölzel) hailed from the country next door, but Austria and Germany share a language. So his 1982 debut album, Einzelhaft, was entirely in German, but that didn’t overly dissuade college radio programmers. The mainstream success arrived a few years later, when Falco acquiesced to make certain his oddball romps about revered classical music composers had English lyrics.

It surely helped that the material on Einzelhaft had vibrant post-disco grooves and intriguing integrations of the shifting styles found in pop music during a particularly seismic time. There are nifty little oddities, such as the panting that pitches on the rhythm track for “Auf der Flucht.” Mostly, though, the album is filled with songs that transcend language — or at least set language aside as a mildly incidental curiosity — because they’re sturdy as can be.

“Ganz Wien” has one of those candy-coated guitar solos that didn’t solely exist in the eighties, but certainly sat more comfortably there than in any other pop era. (The song was nicked by Falco from an earlier punk band in which he served as a bassist.) The title cut recalls the propulsive quality of Kraftwerk at their most stern and focused, and “Nie mehr Schule” plays like JV Bowie, which means it’s still pretty damn good.

All over the album, Falco comes bounding in on  to deliver lyrics pitched somewhere between chanting and rapping, both mimicking the emerging musical form and anticipating how all manner of rap and hip hop textures would become central to almost all of pop music. “Der Kommissar” has the clearest early rap influence, suggesting what Blondie’s “Rapture” might have sounded like had they not played it cool. The U.K. band After the Fire took a translated version of “Der Kommissar” all the way up to the Billboard Top 5 about a year later. That strikes me a further proof that Falco was on to something.

 

 

blue in heaven explicit

999. Blue in Heaven, Explicit Material (1986)

As with just about any Irish band that emerged in the nineteen-eighties, Blue in Heaven had a U2 connection. The quartet was signed to U2’s Mother Records label, releasing a few singles during their tenure. The material was evidently good enough to capture the attention of Island Records, the major label that counted U2 as one of the stalwarts of their stable of artists. Blue in Heaven was signed and saw their debut album, All the Gods’ Men, released in 1985.

For their follow-up release, Blue in Heaven was considered enough of a priority that the label’s founder, Chris Blackwell, pitched in as co-producer. Explicit Material sounds like it was genetically engineered to slide onto college radio playlists with starry-eyed hopes of commercial crossover, which is, of course, another way of explaining it is bland and derivative in a hard-to-pin-down way. “Sister” might be the clearest example, since its brand of loping pop echoes Psychedelic Furs at their least urgent.

On “Be Your Man,” lead singer Shane O’Neill tries to adopt the snarl of Iggy Pop — a sensation compounded by the lyric “I wanna be your dog” slipping in there a few times — while the vocals on “Rolling in the Crowd” pick up a very Hoodoo Gurus vibe. The lyrics don’t help much. “Change Your Mind” is speckled with lines of drab seduction (“Your body waits for me tonight”), like gothy pop with the danger softened.

The band lasted a few more years, but Explicit Material was their final full-length release. The reconfigured as the Blue Angels for a stretch in the early nineties, and drummer Dave Clarke struck out to play with other Irish groups, such as the Black Velvet Band and Hothouse Flowers.

 

fleshtones reality

998. Fleshtones, Fleshtones vs. Reality (1987)

When Fleshtones vs. Reality was released, the band was at a crossroads of sorts. Usually categorized as a loose, fun, proudly frivolous ensemble — because of both the lack of fuss in the band’s garage rock punch and the occasional reputation for raucous behavior — they were determined to deliver a statement of revived purpose, just over a decade they made their debut at CBGB. Recently departed from I.R.S. Records, the Fleshtones wanted listeners to know they still had something to offer. The album’s back cover boasted a rollicking manifesto.

“Although internationally known as ‘Nice Guys’, the FLESHTONES henceforth operate on a SUPER-REVENGE MOTIF, ensuring ‘Great Music’ — and lots of laughs as their plans invariably explode in their faces,” the spirited diatribe read, in part. “Do not attempt to recreate these stunts at home, merely purchase this LP and let these trained professionals get your kicks for you. GO AHEAD. IT’S ALRIGHT.”

For those who wanted to find it, there was evidence of scruffy charm. Following “Way Up Here” with the similarly-titled “Way Down South” on the track listing is a thing of beauty, hinting at a glorious devil-may-care attitude. There’s no need to be precious and arty about this stuff. It’s just good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. “Too Late to Run” is a little like the sort of stuff Let’s Active kicked out with regularity at the time, and “What Ever Makes You Happy” is boisterous as it tells a familiar pop song story of courtship: “When we first met I couldn’t believe my eyes/ I had to try harder than those other guys/ Babe, you’re so sweet, it can’t be true/ It’s so easy gettin’ along with you.”

The punchy horn parts on the various tracks further emphasize the party feel, which may have ultimately been to the band members’ disappointment. They wanted people to know there was more to Fleshtones vs. Reality than met the ear.

“I don’t understand why we’re always accused of being so mindless,” keyboardist and vocalist Peter Zaremba said. “That’s okay, because it’s good to have fun, but some of the lyrics are pointed. The beat is so happy that people just don’t realize it.”

 

cole mainstream

997. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Mainstream (1987)

It’s folly, of course, to suppose lyrics provide insight to a performers inner being rather than simply demonstrate facility as a storyteller. That concession duly made, I do suspect the secret to Lloyd Cole — at least the version of the singer-songwriter who existed circa 1987 — is found somewhere amidst the lines of “My Bag”:  “My head’s swimming with poetry and prose/ Excuse me one moment whilst I powder my nose.”

“My Bag” is the lead track on Mainstream, the third and final album Cole recorded with backing band the Commotions. Recording the album was an arduous affair, beginning with the band’s inability to settle on a producer. Once they connected with Ian Stanley (who, among other releases, had pitched on Songs from the Big Chair, the breakthrough album from Tears for Fears), things improved only marginally. The budget swelled and the recording process took months, trying the patience of various band members. Keyboardist Blair Cowan quit before the album was released and others were eyeing the door.

To a degree, Cole sounds done with his bandmates, too. The album is lush and elegant. It’s the product of a intellectually engaged and somewhat emotionally distant crooner, like a less caustically self-regarding Morrissey or (invoking someone who started making records years later) a more sincere Father John Misty. He’s a solo artist waiting to happen, and that’s precisely where he headed after Mainstream, releasing his first album free of Commotions in 1990.

Mainstream is muddled at times, but Cole’s skills as a songwriter are real. “Sean Penn Blues” is driving and wryly funny (“If I trash this TV then I know I will feel better), “Jennifer She Said” is richly intriguing, and “29” is a luxe version of the romanticization of the forlorn that was Paul Westerberg’s specialty. The songs are sometimes overdressed, but their bones are enviable.

Am I correct about “My Bag”? Surely not. Cole explained the song was about a coked-up New York stockbroker, with the details largely cribbed from the Jay McInerney novel Bright Lights, Big City. When I hear “powder my nose” as an expression of an affected, precious soul, it’s more a marker of my naïveté about pretty basic drug lingo rather than Cole’s abiding sensibility. Cole wasn’t revealing himself literally through the lyrics, but his skill and sensibility are crystal clear.

 

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 — An Introduction

cmj

Over seven years ago, I shared the first College Countdown post, taking advantage of an online find — an old CMJ Top Cuts chart, which are devilishly difficult to track down in the otherwise information-packed superhighway — to offer a revival of sorts, staging my own humble version of the radio program that aired on my alma mater student-run radio station on Sunday nights. Back then, the radio show provided me a weekly study session on the songs dominating the left end of the dial as I lavished in a daring music scene that was largely new to me. In this online iteration, it has mostly been an opportunity for me to write on songs, albums, and artists from decades past, a handy entryway to retrospective music criticism.

Given the resources I have — and, being completely honest, the eras which stir the most interest in me — the years I examine are fading more and more into the rearview as time passes. We are upon the thirtieth anniversary of albums that were brand spankin’ new when I landed at my college radio station. Writing about New Order and the Jesus and Mary Chain now is the equivalent of tapping out words in tribute to Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers back then. It’s undeniable that I’m devoting this weekly chunk of the digital landscape to oldies. Plain and simple, it seems about time to let this feature follow its predominant subjects into relic status.

But surely we can fit in one more countdown, a final countdown, if you will. And if there’s only one more exercise in counting backwards, it should be — to use some appropriately old-timey language — a real humdinger.

Not so long ago, I wrapped up a countdown of the Top 250 songs from the first ten years of CMJ, the now-bygone trade publication which served college radio. Compiled in mid-1989, the songs provided a nifty encapsulation of what was arguably college radio’s most magical era, when the likes of R.E.M., U2, the Cure, the Smiths, Hüsker Dü, Erasure, and the Replacement emerged and became dominant in a cool little subsection of pop culture — and occasionally crossed over to be unlikely hitmakers on the portions of the airwaves peppered with commercials.

The Top 250 songs chart was published in a handsome paperback sent out to all reporting stations on the occasion of the anniversary. And that wasn’t the only chart contained therein.

On a poster folded into the middle of the book, there was tallying of popularity across the decade even more ludicrously robust than the listing of tracks favored by college radio. Simply dubbed “CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989,” the chart stretched into quadruple digits to capture the albums that had captivated college programmers the most. It is vast and wide-ranging, thrilling and daunting. Taken together, it is unquestionably the sound of college radio in the nineteen-eighties.

And every last bit of it will make up the next — and last — College Countdown. This, my friends, will take years.

It formally gets underway next week, and will continue every Sunday from there, until we reach the very top. Brew some coffee, warm up the transmitter, and make sure there are a couple spare needles for the turntable. This is going to be quite a ride.

For those looking to review where we’ve gone thus far, these are all the other countdowns that brought us to this point:

 

The 90FM-WWSP charts

90FM’s Top 90 of 1989

90FM’s Top 90 of 1995

90FM’s Top 90 of 1996

The CMJ charts

The First CMJ Album Chart (from 1978)

CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990

CMJ Radio Top Cuts chart from Winter 1991

CMJ Top 50 Albums of 2001

CMJ Top 250 Songs of 1979-1989

 

The other charts

The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981

KROQ-FM’s Top 40 Songs of 1987

First Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart from Fall 1988

Rockpool‘s Top 20 College Radio Albums from November 1988

The Gavin Report Top 20 Alternative Chart from October 1992