College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #892 to #889

spandau glory

892. Spandau Ballet, Journeys to Glory (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

swans love

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

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

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

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

 

 

Billy No

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

cope nation

889. Julian Cope, My Nation Underground (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #896 to #893

bananarama

896. Bananarama, Bananarama (1984)

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

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

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

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

 

 

bow last

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

toni word

894. Toni Basil, Word of Mouth (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

godafthers hit

893. The Godfathers, Hit By Hit (1986)

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

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

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

 

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

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #900 to #897

waterboys pagan

900. The Waterboys, A Pagan Place (1984)

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

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

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

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

 

 

jane sky

899. Jane Siberry, The Speckless Sky (1985)

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

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

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

 

 

journey departure

898. Journey, Departure (1980)

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

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

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

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

 

 

nitzer that

897. Nitzer Ebb, That Total Age (1987)

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #904 to #901

cure whispers

904. The Cure, Japanese Whispers (1983)

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

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

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

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

 

 

bowie never

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

live

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

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

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

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

 

 

billy help

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #908 to #905

bears rise

908. The Bears, Rise and Shine (1988)

Rise and Shine was the second album from the Bears, a group guitarist Adrian Belew assembled when King Crimson went on hiatus. At the time, Belew had a reasonably healthy solo career and a resume dotted with highly valued stints with iconic acts such as Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. Presumably, he could have pursued just about any creative avenue he wanted in rock music, and what he wanted was a truly collaborative band focused on songcraft. Joined by musicians from the relatively obscure Cincinnati-based band the Raisins (who Belew had produced at one time), Belew formed the Bears and landed a contract with Primitive Man Recording Company, a subsidiary of I.R.S. Records.

The egalitarian vibe is clear from Belew’s conviction to just another part of the combo. His wickedly warped guitar heroics are deployed sparingly — such as the burst of fevered squall at the end of the quite funk workout “Rabbit Manor” — in favor of solid, unpretentious tracks pitched clearly at the college radio market. There are still doses of weirdness here and there, surely a result of Belew’s curious tinkering in the studio (the album was recorded in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, essentially Belew’s home base at the time). Trilling sonic trickery subtly simulates ambient sounds from a primeval forest on “Save Me,” taking its cue from opening lines “I was a monkey dancing in the trees/ Out where the jungle used to be/ Before the lumber company/ Took my home away from me.”

As the environmental theme of “Save Me” indicates, Rise and Shine finds Belew and his cohorts joining in the social discourse. Released in the closing months of the Reagan era, the album is awash in the leftward politics of the day, agitating for enlightenment. “Robobo’s Beef” refutes attempts to impose motives of villainy onto other nations and people, but it also makes its point with such flat-footed literalism (“If you watch the news on TV/ It’s enough to make you sick/ Think we need a new solution/ Think we better find it quick”) that it comes close to Sting at his most geopolitically tedious. At least the argument is clear. Sometimes the direct language of the lyrics still can’t rescue a song from inscrutability, leading to the cryptic and the didactic to become intertwined. On “Old Fat Cadillac,” Belew sings, “‘So, Mr. President/ Whatcha doing?,’ I propose to say/ About this fallout business/ Raining all over our parade.” It’s puzzling, but the preacher-lite raving about the titular vehicle anticipates the carnival barker rock star tomfoolery of Jack White.

The single “Aches and Pains” plays like a less restless version of a Dave Edmunds song, making it one of the most successful realizations of the Bears’ mission of creating fine, straightforward pop songs. But I also find plenty of appeal in moments of goofball invention on Rise and Shine, like “Highway 2,” a throwaway play on Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone.” And I will surely never be able to parse the meaning of “Complicated Potatoes,” but there’s a clear, happy sense that the band is following their shared muse with a blithe fearlessness.

 

 

dregs earth

907. Dixie Dregs, Dregs of the Earth (1980)

It’s sort of remarkable that it took until their fourth full-length release for the Dixie Dregs to use the most obvious album title at their disposal. Dregs of the Earth was the Georgia band’s first outing on Arista Records, which they’d jumped to after their previous label, Capricorn Records, filed for bankruptcy. Led and produced by guitarist Steve Moore, Dixie Dregs made a careening mashup of all the styles of seventies rock music. It’s hard to say how good of a finished product they came up with, but it’s definitely of the era.

Comprised entirely of instrumentals, the album sometimes feels as though the Dixe Dregs are mostly committed to coming up with material that can be easily used as soun beds for other projects. Any given thirty seconds of the mid tempo “Twiggs Approved” could have been culled from to provide the theme music to a late night talk show hosted by a cool, up-and-coming comedian. If NBC had scrapped Pink Lady and Jeff and instead given Jeff Altman the slot after Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show, the opening titles would have sounded like this.

The tracks on Dregs of the Earth are mostly fairly compact, but the infectious sprawl facilitated by album rock pomposity sometimes gets the better of the band, “Hereafter” is just redundant enough to feel as endless as the afterlife, and “Old World” seems like it was crafted specifically for closing time at the Ren Fair. At nine minutes and change, “I’m Freaking Out” is all the traits of southern rock, prog rock, and fusion jazz plopped into one boiling stew of crazy.

Although this all seemed pitched right into the wheelhouse of rock record buyers, Dregs of the Earth apparently didn’t stir commercial appeal in accordance with the band’s hopes. By the time of their next record, the band had changed their name to simply the Dregs, believing it would help them find a larger audience. They evidently didn’t have a clear view of what might be holding them back.

 

 

ono milk

906. John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Milk and Honey (1984)

Milk and Honey was released in January of 1984, a little more than three years after John Lennon was shot and killed outside his New York City home. Assembled by his widow, Yoko Ono, from material he’d been working on shortly before his murder, the album was a spiritual sequel to the 1980 comeback effort Double Fantasy. As was the case with its predecessor, Milk and Honey was a collaborative affair between Lennon and Ono, alternating between his post-Beatle adult pop and her deconstructionist art rock. Taken as a whole, it traces the ways in which artistic discord and alignment can be mere threads apart.

Lennon’s half of the album is loose and a little loopy, obviously comprised of early takes that may have gone through steps of refinement before being pronounced ready. There’s no guarantee, however, that Lennon would have kept buffing them into shape, since he’d long been inclined to preserve his most spontaneous moments. The cartoonish scatting on “Borrowed Time,” for example, sounds like filler. If it is, it’s easy to imagine Lennon recognizing its playful charm and keeping the scattered syllable in place on the finished product. I’d like to think he would have eventually decided “Grow Old with Me” was pure schmaltz and moved it to the discard bin, but he was hardly immune from gladly hurling that kind of material into the world across his career.

More than most, Lennon and Ono always did seem to be cracking themselves wide open when they created music. They set their shared and individual memoirs to music. “I’m Stepping Out” is about Lennon’s time as a househusband, and “I Don’t Wanna Face It” explicates his mixed emotions as a curmudgeonly activist (“You wanna save humanity/ But it’s people that you just can’t stand”). Ono’s tilt toward the odd can initially make it more difficult to find the biography, but this insomniac recognizes the tale she’s spinning on “Sleepless Night.” Working in feeling and impression rather than more literal expressions of information doesn’t automatically make a song more distant from the truth.

As was clear at the time of its release, Milk and Honey was the final studio statement of Lennon, one of the most important songwriters of the rock era. That imposed a tremendous burden on the release. Everyone wanted to find a meaningful closing statement, a track that would encapsulate all Lennon had said before and perhaps hint at the future perspectives criminally snuffed from the world. The single “Nobody Told Me” meets that impossible expectation just well enough. Wry, observant, a little mischievous, irresistibly catchy, and quietly reverberating with personality, the track was originally written for Ringo Starr, but it feels rightly at home in Lennon’s land. If nothing else, “Everybody’s smokin’/ And no one’s gettin’ high,” that last word delivered in a cheerful falsetto, is everything endearing about Lennon’s creative outlook in a few buoyant seconds. He shines on.

 

soul while

905. Soul Asylum, While You Were Out (1986)

Soul Asylum wasn’t a well-known band in 1986, but they made sure there was plenty of music available for the faithful. Including the B-sides and random bits collection Time’s Incinerator (available on cassette only), the Minneapolis band released three different albums during the calendar year. While You Were Out was the final member of the trio and Soul Asylum’s last before jumping to major label A&M Records. Understandably, then, the album is brash, headlong, and mildly undistinguished.

The band bashes away at the songs like the power is likely to be cut at any second. “Freaks” is a steady march of fab hard rock clatter, and “No Man’s Land” sounds a little like the more muscular R.E.M. found on the same year’s Lifes Rich Pageant. Betraying their civic roots. “Miracle Mile” comes close to merely aping the punk tunefulness of Hüsker Dü. If the band is sometimes a little simple, seemingly plowing ahead with the first notion that comes into their heads, they’re at least always earnest about it. There’s nothing all that profound or defiant about the message of rejecting outside criticism found on “The Judge” (“Not that I care what you think of me/ But I hear every word that you say/ And I can’t let you misjudge me that way”), but the outcast empowerment of it undoubtedly sounded great in the confines of a dingy Midwestern club.

Although most of While You Were Out is Soul Asylum in their brash development stage, “Closer to the Stars” offers the clearest forecast of the band that would eventually crossover: yearning, achingly sincere, a little simplistic, offering rock that managed to be ragged and polished at once. Whether the song is good or not is immaterial. Listening to the track, it’s clear this is a band that has a least one hit in them.

 

 

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 — #912 to #909

palmer clues

912. Robert Palmer, Clues (1980)

Emerging as a solo performer in the midst of the nineteen-seventies, Robert Palmer was one of the British singers touted for his soulful vocalizations. Arguably, there was no better path to U.S. commercial success for a U.K. rocker than instilling straightforward rock songs with a little blues styling, and Palmer followed that path with studied conviction. At the dawn of the eighties, though, practically every artist with a few records under their belt was compelled to try on the sonic variations present in new wave music. On the evidence of his album Clues, the venture into the insurgent pop form exposed some shortcomings.

“Looking for Clues,” the opening track and one of the album’s singles, has unmistakable new wave sizzle, which winds up overwhelming Palmer’s vocals. They sound remarkably thin and have only the most meager amount of personality. Similarly, “Found You Now” is, I think, meant to be a vocal of bluesy yearning, but it mostly sounds like shouting. Nothing reverberates with spirit or authority. The vocals are echoes of echoes until they may as well be a timid whisper.

Palmer produced the album himself, but often seems confused about the best way to showcase the material. His voice keeps getting swamped out by the music, which isn’t interesting enough to justify its prominence. “What Do You Care” has some of the musical assurance of early Elvis Costello, but lacking the erudition that truly set those songs apart. The disco slither of “Johnny and Mary” is a little interesting, at least in the way it anticipates the odd German synthpop of Peter Schilling and others. The cover of Gary Numan’s “I Dream of Wires” is far more characteristic. It’s notably watered down, despite the fact that Numan himself pitches in on keyboards.

Clues, unsurprisingly, was something of a commercial setback for Palmer. Its singles barely registered on the U.S charts, and the album fared more poorly than its immediate predecessors. Within a few years, though, Palmer cracked the code of MTV-era chart success in a big way.

 

everything love

911. Everything But the Girl, Love Not Money (1985)

Love Not Money was the sophomore full-length from purveyors of elegant pop Everything But the Girl. Although sharing the same title and a very similar track list, it still found the the duo’s labels on either side of the Atlantic — Blanco y Negro in the U.K. and Sire in the U.S. — adopting slightly different philosophies as to what was likely to stir the interest of the listening public. The band’s proper debut, Eden, was originally issued in the U.S., as Sire instead opted to pull a half dozen tracks from it, jumble them with some stray singles and B-sides, and put them all out as self-titled album.

Most of Love Not Money was carried straight over, but Sire proved an ongoing wavering confidence when they added a somewhat flaccid cover of the Pretenders’ “Kid” right in the middle of the record, hoping the familiarity would help, especially since lead singer Tracey Thorn’s vocals bore a resemblance to the deep warmth of Chrissie Hynde’s original singing. Maybe the kids would get confused enough to dig deeper into the richly produced material Everything But the Girl offered up.

Everything But the Girl was already celebrated for their jazzy stylings that buffed out the aggressive bleats and kept the low lounge light seduction. Love Not Money retains that at points — notably in the silky swoon of “Shoot Me Down” — but Love Not Money adds some textures. The jauntiness found on “When All’s Well” and “Are You Trying to Be Funny” reaches such a headlong pace by “Anytown” that Everything But the Girl almost start to seem like kindred souls to the Smiths. And they add a mildly militaristic march beat to “Ugly Little Dreams,” befitting its depiction of society as a war waged against women that can never quite be won; “It’s a battlefield, Frances/ You fight or concede/ Victory to the enemy/ Who call your strength insanity.”

Despite Sire’s efforts to reconfigure the record (or maybe partially because of them), Love Not Money made barely a blip in the U.S., apart from college radio. It would take years — and a jump to Atlantic Records — before Everything But the Girl generated a significant hit in the States. When it happened, though, it made quite an impact.

 

honey one

910. The Honeydrippers, Volume 1 (1984)

The debut EP from the Honeydrippers is the pure definition of a vanity project, except perhaps that the vanity in question was not that of anyone actually in the band. The supergroup was essentially assembled to do the bidding of Atlantic Records label head Ahmet Ertegün, who reportedly wanted to hear new versions of some of his favorite hits from the nineteen-fifties. Where others would have little more than an adequate wedding band at their disposal, Ertegün had a roster of rock ‘n’ roll titans. Robert Plant had already been performing the odd gig with a backing band he called the Honeydrippers, mostly to stir his bygone fandom juices as he prepared to work on solo material. Ertegün saw them play and urged them to make a recording. An EP of covers, optimistically dubbed Volume 1, was the result.

Apparently, Ertegün wasn’t the only one who wanted to hear stuff like this on the radio in the mid-nineteen-eighties. The group’s dutiful cover of “Sea of Love” made it all the way to #3 on the Billboard chart, outperforming any of the singles of Plant’s former band, the revered Led Zeppelin. This outcome appalled Plant, who envisioned his stock as a rock god singer diminishing (and it probably didn’t amuse the amazing roster of guitarists on the EP, including Jeff Beck and Plant’s Led Zep cohort Jimmy Page, suddenly reduced to adequate session men). He was correct to be dismayed because the track is painfully drab, anticipating the grotesquely disengaged mangling of pop standards that would define the backend of Rod Stewart’s career. A take on “Good Rockin’ at Midnight” is the only song on Volume 1 that’s even palatable, mostly because Plant’s vocal calisthenics — as if he’s trying hard to keep himself engaged — have some charm.

Understandably, Volume 2 never arrived. Except for the odd charity gig, the Honeydrippers were buried, their indifferent raids of bygone classics blessedly abandoned.

 

big songs

909. Big Black, Songs About Fucking (1987)

Thirty years after the released of Big Black’s album Songs About Fucking, guitarist and vocalist Steve Albini summed up the band’s goal simply and clearly to Rolling Stone.

“We wanted to make filthy music,” he said.

They unquestionably accomplished that. Albini and his bandmates — bassist Dave Riley and guitarist Santiago Durango — were offering a direct response to the insurgent Parents’ Music Resource Council, which was lambasting the record labels for daring to release records that mentioned masturbation and other taboo subjects. It was Albini who cooked up the title Songs About Fucking, essentially reasoning that there was a time when practically all of rock ‘n’ roll could reasonably be described that way. They were merely carrying on a time-tested tradition.

The material on Songs About Fucking indulges lustily in carnal clatter, although usually through insinuation rather than direct lyrical bawdiness. The filth is arguably more present in the music. Beginning with the buzzy fervor of “The Power of Independent Trucking,” Big Black blasts through punk songs that add a layer of sonic soot to the headlong charge. The fierce back and forth of “Bad Penny” forecasts the industrial assaults of Ministry, but with an injection of punk rock discipline, and the jackhammer guitar punches of “L Dopa” are thrilling.

“Kitty Empire” is all slither and snarl, and its runtime at just over four minutes practically makes it prog rock epic by punk band terms. “Fish Fry” couches its ultraviolence — in the lyrics, mirrored by the racing engine music — in the banality of the traditional, highly unhealthy dinner used to end the work week across the Midwest. It’s a simply trick, but a good one, adding yet more friction to an album already giving off a cascade of white hot sparks.

The protest of Songs About Fucking was deeply satisfying to the members of Big Black, undoubtedly accentuated by the fact they knew it was their last hurrah. Durango was also dead set on starting law school in the the fall of 1987, an act he saw a duty to his immigrant family that had sacrificed much for him. With one-third of the band stepping away, it seemed wrong to continue.

“This is our vocabulary, the three of us,” Albini said on the occasion of the band’s final shows, performed shortly before Songs About Fucking was released. “If we tried to plug someone in when Santa left and called it Big Black, it would be katastrof!”

 

 

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 — #916 to #913

babys jacks

916. Babys, Union Jacks (1980)

Union Jacks, the fourth album by the U.K. rock band the Babys, was the first one they recorded fully without founding member Michael Corby. The guitarist/keyboard player was ousted during the recording process for the preceding studio effort, Head First, released in early 1979. After adding two new members to the roster — keyboardist Jonathan Cain and bassist Ricky Phillips — the band went into the studio with producer Keith Olsen, fresh off Foreigner’s Double Vision and Santana’s Marathon. The Babys were clearly aiming for a certain slicked-up rock sound. They definitely got it.

Album opener “Back on My Feet Again” is pure cheese, declaring a revived endurance befitting a band that’s endured some personnel tumult. The guitar lines sound as if they’re coated in shellac and the keyboard flit in and out like birds chirping through a vocoder. Lead singer John Waite preens his way through the vocals, practically every emotionally intense twist of his head somehow coming through. Whether great or awful (and I’ll admit I can land on either assessment, depending on when I hear it), the track is absolutely of the era. Released as a single, it became the third and final Top 40 hit in the U.S.

The rest of the album is largely most of the same, big rock tracks that gleam and shimmer and don’t leave a mark. The jabbing drum beats and waterfall synth lines on “In Your Eyes” at least provide a little different texture, but that’s a rarity. More tracks adhere to the model of “Anytime,” which is a more plodding version of what the Kings were doing at about the same time, and “Midnight Rendezvous” which was featured in the ribald comedy Up the Academy, dually notable for its positioning as the first cinematic effort associated with Mad magazine and standing as a rare instance of director Robert Downey, Sr. trying to play nice with a major studio. The latter track is one of the stronger cuts, but it also betrays Waite’s propensity for inane bluntness when he growls “I really wanna fuck you” on the fade out.

In general, they lyrics are the most consistently regrettable part of Union Jacks. On the mid-tempo “True Love Confession,” Waite sings, “I try to call ya/ But I only get your service/ You’re the Playmate of the Year/ So I guess that I deserve it.” That garbled nonsense is still superior to the words in the incredibly bizarre “Jesus, Are You There?,” in which Waite’s religious questing manifests as requests for help paying the rent, getting a girl, and being taken “on a cruise around the world.” There’s a clear oversight in the litany of prayers. Waite and his compatriots mainly needed heavenly assistance with their songwriting.

 

 

Grateful Go

915. Grateful Dead, Go to Heaven (1980)

Even among their most faithful fans, the Grateful Dead long had a reputation for transcendent live shows (abetted by plentiful pharmaceutical and herbal enhancements, of course) and studio albums that are mediocre at best. When it came to the efforts crafted in the recording studio, the blasé wasn’t always merited. American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, both released in 1970, are sturdy as can be, and even later, more uneven efforts, such as From the Mars Hotel, have their charms. But, man alive, when the Grateful Dead records are bad, they are brutally bad. Go to Heaven is bad.

Go to Heaven peaks with opening track “Alabama Getaway,” a satisfying, straight-ahead song that approaches rock ‘n’ roll purity, up to and including a runtime that stretches just a few seconds over three-and-a-half minutes. Though hardly the only instance of economy on the record, it’s absolutely the first and last time the band is tight and focused. Even the thirty-seven second track “Antwerp’s Placebo (The Plumber),” an experimental goof officially co-written by drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, feels like it goes on forever, its indulgence as unpleasant as a summer cold. When the band actually stretches out, as on the nearly seven-minute “Althea,” the drowsy quality of the track becomes unbearable.

Go to Heaven was the first album with keyboardist/vocalist Brent Mydland, and he contributes two songs, the Queen-on-heavy-barbiturates “Far From Me” and the tinkling “Easy to Love You.” Neither is particularly distinguished, but the new guy does better than the venerable Bob Weir. With his usual songwriting partner, John Perry Barlow, Weir contributes the most immediately loathsome material. “Feel Like a Stranger” is so aimless that it’s barely a song, and “Lost Sailor” sounds like the band is trying to singlehandedly invent, perfect, and bury soft rock.

 

As with other maligned examples of the band’s studio output, there have been overtures in recent years to reevaluate Go to Heaven, casting the material in a more favorable light. Successful or not as those efforts may be, there’s one aspect of the record that is unlikely to ever escape scorn.

“It plays better now than it did back then,” Kreutzmann once said. “That’s still no excuse for the cover, though – all six of us, dressed all in white disco suits against a white background.”

 

neil comes

914. Neil Young, Comes a Time (1978)

Following a small string of albums that likely confused his audience — including the complicated Zuma and the crazy stew of American Stars ‘n Bars — Neil Young returned to the homespun folk-rock that characterized the biggest hit of his solo career, the 1972 album Harvest. If it was a gambit, it worked. Comes a Time was Young first album since Harvest to climb into the Top 5 on the Billboard album chart. As it happened, though, the person who bought the most copies of Comes a Time was Young himself.

The original master tape of the album got damaged (Young recalled to Rolling Stone that “it went through the airport or something”) and Young approved the tape for final pressing without realizing the problem. Once he listened to it, he realized the high frequencies were missing. Since he signed off on the records being made, but he couldn’t stand the thought of inferior product being sold under his name, Young made an agreement with his record label to purchase 200,000 copies of the album so they could start over. He reportedly used the vinyl to shingle the roof of a barn on his property.

“I don’t like throwing money around,” Young said. “But I wasn’t going to have this album circulating around the world in bad quality.”

The songs on Comes a Time are gentle and intricate, reflecting the more meditative side of Young. “I know things are gonna change/ But I can’t say bad or good,” he sings on “Look Out for My Love,” and that about sums it up. There’s a similar neighborly simplicity to “Field of Opportunity,” which the farming life as a metaphor for relationships (“”There ain’t no way of telling/ Where these seeds/ Will rise or when/ I’ll just wait/ Around ’til springtime/ And then, I’ll find a friend”). Or maybe it’s completely literal. That would be in keeping with the album’s fuss-free vibe.

The pleasant amble “Four Strong Winds” became a minor hit for Young (peaking at #61, it was his first song to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 in four years), but it was another song that made a significant impact on the charts, albeit not in his version. Nicolette Larson, who contributed harmony vocals on a couple tracks, took Young’s “Lotta Love,” spruced it up, and put it right at the top of her 1978 debut album, Nicolette. Released as a single, it made it all the way into the U.S. Top 10.

 

 

smiths rank

913. The Smiths, Rank (1988)

The Smiths were in ruins when the live album Rank was released. The relationship between lead singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, which had long ago strayed far from the convivial, soured to such a degree that the two couldn’t stand speaking to each other, a rift that continues to this day. They still owed their label an album, so a concert previously aired on BBC1 Radio was dragged out. Morrissey excised some of the band’s best loved songs from the final track list. “How Soon is Now?,” as prime example, was performed that night, but was left off Rank. And it seems to me that Johnny Marr’s guitar is suspiciously low in the mix on the album, but I could be mistaken.

As captured on the record, much of the live performance is dutiful, or even aggressively disinterested. “Ask” is introduced as the band’s new single, but Morrissey already seems bored with it, overenunciating some words and slopping others out. He engages in other vocal tomfoolery on other songs, such as the growl that tuns into a gargle on “Still Ill” Rather than give the material a loose immediacy, it undercuts the strength of songs. The output of the Smiths is too strong to be trashed completely by onstage sabotage (the punk drive of “London” works especially well in the live setting), but it’s telling when Morrissey is actual alert to the moment, as when the band segues from a cover of Elvis Presley’s “His Latest Flame” into “Rusholme Ruffians.” By most accounts, Morrissey’s insistence on covering old pop hits was the final straw that broke Marr’s back, so the lead singer’s evident pleasure at aping the King makes sense. Even then, it’s more a curiosity than an instance of album suddenly, briefly getting good.

The title Rank comes from British slang for masturbation, a compromise Morrissey settled on after the label rejected his original choice: The Smiths in Heat. There’s another definition of the word, straight from the dictionary, that also suits the album. Rank stinks.

 

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