College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #652 to #649

call woods

652. The Call, Into the Woods (1987)

After enduring some professional tumult, the Call were presumably feeling at least somewhat settled when they got down to recording Into the Woods, their fifth studio album. Its immediate predecessor, the prior year’s Reconciled, was their first with label Elektra Records, where they’d signed after a protracted legal battle left them without a corporate home and entirely uncertain as to whether or not their music would see further release. Reconciled yielded the respectable rock radio hit “I Still Believe (Grand Design)” and the mounting success of U2, flashing like a beacon with the early 1987 release of The Joshua Tree, suggested mainstream commercial taste was turning in a direction nicely conducive to the Call’s anthemic songs.

Into the Woods held one of the big, soaring singles that were the Call’s calling card. Album opener “I Don’t Wanna” is a love song of emotion, employing a litany of rejected romantic gestures on its way to declaring an all-consuming need. That same vast sonic scope is found across the album, whether when the band borrows some of the slow-build bombast of gospel music on “In the River” or mixes in some honky-tonk flavors in the punchy rocker “Walk Walk.” Studio puffery was very much the style of the day, but it could get perilous. “Day or Night” demonstrates how close the Call could come to the hollow pop rock boom of someone like John Parr, and ballad “Memory” slips into off-putting treacle.

Some tracks hint at a version of the band that crafts leaner, sharper songs. The skittering and forceful “It Could Have Been Me” has a fervent energy, and “Too Many Tears” is like an old movie western theme refracted through a new wave lens. The cuts aren’t necessarily better than the arena-ready fullness that was the Call’s clear specialty, but the little sprinklings of variety are welcome tempering of a style that could become numbing in its implied profundity. Not every song need stretch excitedly toward the heavens.

 

blue walk

651. The Blue Nile, A Walk Across the Rooftops (1984)

The high polish of the Blue Nile’s pop music prompted a persistent myth about the band. Supposedly, the group secured the contract to record their debut full-length release because a manufacturer of expensive stereo equipment wanted a records that would properly showcase its technology. The band members have repeatedly denied and debunked that version of their origin story, but listening to A Walk Across the Rooftops, the Blue Nile’s debut album, it’s easy to discern why the story took hold. Elegant and jaw-dropping, the album seems genetically engineered to make someone value precision equipment that could properly reveal its intricacies.

The Glasgow trio opens A Walk Across the Rooftops with a title cut that places a lush, elegant pop sound up against an anxious countermelody of plunking synthesizers. It plays with the mechanics of electronic dance music without any evident hopes of raising a pulse or setting a foot to tapping. The pace is typified by piercing ballad “Easter Parade” and the deeply relaxed “Heatwave,” the latter sounding as though lead singer Paul Buchanan is delivering his vocals from the deepest reaches of a silken hammock. The erudite air can occasionally veer close to stultifying beauty, which is compounded by lyrics that often repeat like fading echoes. “Tinseltown in the Rain” is lovely, but it’s also a metaphor looking for a proper emotion to moor itself to.

A Walk Across the Rooftops is most exciting when the Blue Nile seem to be reinventing the textures of their art on the fly. “From Rags to Riches” is pop music pared back to near-abstractions, the eventual province of Portishead. The persistent classic pop feel to the album means the band isn’t exactly laying the groundwork for trip hop or some other future innovation, but there’s a daring at play that recognizably similar to the startling norm-warping to come.

 

young men

650. The Young Fresh Fellows, The Men Who Loved Music (1987)

‘There’s a fine line between taking yourself too seriously and being a total cutup band that no one will take seriously,” Chuck Carroll, guitarist and singer with the Young Fresh Fellows, told the Chicago Tribune shortly after the release of the band’s third album, The Men Who Loved Music. ”And I think it insults some people to see a band that has some funny elements in its music. Some people only want serious music, something they can sink their teeth into. But you can’t please everybody, and we’re certainly pleasing ourselves at this point.”

If there was a tinge of novelty to the band’s songwriting — as with the flurry of classic television references in “TV Dream” (“For some reason you kill Pugsley and Dick Grayson, too/ Perry Mason out and out refuses to help you”) — it was becoming increasingly clear that the musicianship of the Seattle-based band was no joke. The fleet of songs on The Men Who Loved Music, the band’s first to receive a concerted national push to college radio, careen across styles, each played with enviable craft. Mostly, they stuck with a buffed up rock ‘n’ roll sound, occasionally pushed to a higher volume. The punky burst of “Why I Oughta” and squawking hard rock number “I Got My Mojo Working (And I Thought You’d Like to Know)” are fine demonstrations of the Young Fresh Fellows’ muscularity. And “Ant Farm” is musically similar to those instances when Bruce Springsteen borrows lovingly from classic girl group ditties.

For most college programmers, though, it was probably the jokier material that connected. The album’s clearest college radio hit was “Amy Grant,” a catchy cut that posited a mildly salacious secret life enjoyed by the Christian music singer who’d recently made surprising ripples on the mainstream pop charts. Better yet is “When the Girls Get Here,” which gently mocks the hopeful posturing of dudes expecting a contingent of lovely young ladies at their social gathering (“We’ll put out our guitars/ And tell ’em how we’re gonna be stars”). The track is amusing, but it has clear merits beyond the punchlines, including a tang of empathy that carries it beyond the mere brattiness of other college rock bands that largely leaned on laughs. The Young Fresh Fellows were funny. The Young Fresh Fellows were also a dandy rock band.

 

lords method

649. The Lords of the New Church, The Method to Our Madness (1984)

I.R.S. Records felt like the Lords of the New Church were floundering. Boasting a membership that drew from some of the most credibly cool bands of the punk era, the Lords of the New Church had flashed into being with a couple raw, righteous albums, but the third studio effort was proving to be more of a challenge. The label hired Chris Tsangarides to produce the album, hoping his touch with hard rock acts, such as Thin Lizzy, would bring some useful discipline and a professional sheen to the finished product. That’s exactly what resulted, but it sometimes seems the personality of the band gets lost in the effort. The Method to Our Madness often sounds like it could have come from just about anyone.

The album opens with the grinding “Method to My Madness,” all seething and feigned fury. The strutting “Pretty Baby Scream” and the lonely heartbreak ballad “When the Blood Runs Cold” (“My coquette cutie with a chameleon heart/ You tried to change me, to disarrange me”) show further how easily the band could be molded into slick, slightly generic shape. In this form, the practiced darkness can start to seem like mere posturing. The wolf howls on the opening of “Fresh Flesh” are simply the first signal that the cut pushes its menacing horrors so hard it slides into ridiculousness.

The more the band’s long-held, ash black sensibility comes through, the better. The performers got their respective starts in an era of garish, semi-ironic showmanship, and that fine history is infused into “Murder Style,” which is maybe the closest lead singer Stiv Bators comes to the preening glam perfection of the New York Dolls’ David Johansen. And then they finally reach for full goth operatics on album closer “My Kingdom Come.” It still approaches the ludicrous, but in a way that feels like taunting rather than half-hearted indulgence. Only at the very end of The Method to Our Madness does it feel like a creatively engaged version of the Lords of the New Church arrives.

 

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 — #656 to #653

headboys

656. The Headboys, The Headboys (1979)

“At the time, it was important to construct an image,” guitarist Lou Lewis noted in explaining the origins of his band the Headboys. “I got a pretty severe haircut and went to the schoolwear shop on Commercial Street. I bought a school shirt, tie, and blazer, and wore them with white Kickers and skintight jeans. I was due to meet the guys at a pub in Edinburgh and I turned up like that. The next thing I knew, they were off to do the same.”

After starting operations as a band called Badger, the Scottish quartet adopted the name the Headboys and became the subject of a small bidding war between record companies. They eventually settled on Robert Stigwood’s RSO Records, deciding it was going to be more fun recording for it, and the band set out to make their first album, all before they’d played a live gig together. The Headboys was released, heralded by the modest hit single “The Shape of Things to Come,” which sounds like choice power pop with a prog rock hangover. Musically, it’s one of those songs that encapsulates the end of the nineteen-seventies, as one form was giving way to others.

The Headboys is full of strange little gems that reflect and refract the era. “Stepping Stones” has the crispness and ease of Pete Townshend’s solo work, and “Experiments” could fit nicely onto one of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled efforts. There’s a nifty jitterbug bounce to “The Breakout,” and “The Ripper” comes across as the product of a veddy British version of Kiss. Some other finger-swirls in the zeitgeist haven’t aged as well. “Schoolgirls” is pretty gross, and another sign that lecherous pining after teenaged girls was evidently as obligatory for late-seventies male performers as invective against Margaret Thatcher was for U.K. punks bands was a few years later.

Some European touring followed, including at least one gig at which some Irish upstarts going by the name U2 opened up for them, but the Headboys were mostly interested in getting back into the studio to record their next album, at least initially. As they were finishing up their sophomore album, the group collectively decided they were worn out by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. They called it quits, and the new material they recorded went unreleased for over thirty years, finally showing up in 2013, on a CD dubbed The Lost Album.

 

princ 99

655. Prince, 1999 (1982)

1999 was Prince’s fourth full-length studio effort, but, in practically every respect, the double album was where his artistic revolution began. To dispense with the pun quickly, 1999 was the first album to feature his most famed backing band, though the Revolution doesn’t receive the same prominent official billing they’d enjoy on subsequent releases. The album also provided a major commercial breakthrough for Prince. Three years after his sole Top 40 single to that point, 1999 delivered three different songs into the glory land of the Billboard chart, and the album itself was Prince’s first to reach the Top 10 and log multi-platinum sales. Those formidable achievements aside, 1999 is significant because it was arguable the first instance of the Prince asserted the full force of his unique musical genius.

The astonishing side one is enough to settle any debate about the album’s greatness. “1999,” “Delirious,” and “Little Red Corvette” arrive in succession, an opening so potent that even the most aggressively stacked greatest hits collections can’t touch it. No other stretch of the album truly approaches that early, dizzying peak, but there are mind-spinning concoctions of sound all over. The jittery “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” and the sweet soul groove of “International Lover” attest to the Prince’s easy mastery of whatever style he adopts, and other tracks offer equally convincing evidence of his ease in drawing boundaries only to stroll past them. Sometimes only fanciful metaphor will do, as with “D.S.M.R.,” with its floaty, buzzing quality that suggests the funk song an especially cool bumblebee might cook up.

As the album wears on, Prince sometimes lets songs meander, drawing dangerously close to mere noodling. “Lady Cab Driver” extends the blithe straying to the lyrics (“Help me girl I’m drownin’, mass confusion in my head/ Will you accept my tears to pay the fare?”), but any problems are minor, counterbalanced completely by the churning nebulae of pure invention. It’s almost undeniable that a major artist in emerging in the album’s grooves. “Automatic” might be the clearest forecast of the relentless innovation and unchecked mastery that Prince would deploy on his next album, the mega-selling Purple Rain.

 

game real

654. Game Theory, Real Nighttime (1985)

On the sophomore release from the California-based band Game Theory, the primacy of frontman and chief songwriter Scott Miller was affirmed. Following a tour meant to showcase the new music they’d created, Game Theory essentially fell apart, with every member except Miller leaving the band for various reasons. The album’s original group shot front cover was hastily replaced with a photo of only Miller, and the band personnel were officially billed as simply contributing musicians, with no higher status that the studio players recruited to help fill out certain tracks. Real Nighttime was still a Game Theory album, but it represented the establishment of Game Theory as Miller and whoever he brought along with him.

Working with producer Mitch Easter, who was sought out by Miller because he was impressed by R.E.M.’s Chronic Town, Game Theory delivers an album of limber, expressive pop-rock, bearing the Americana-touched sound and eager earnestness of mid-nineteen-eighties college rock. Cascading “24,” anxious, forceful “Friend of the Family,” and echoing mid-tempo number “She’ll Be a Verb” sound as though they were produced in a lab to appeal to serenely sincere student broadcasters hovering around the age of twenty. Growing into young adulthood was a theme Miller explored on the album, and the music has the quality of shifting between enthusiasm and hesitancy familiar to anyone whose struggled to find their way in their post-collegiate years.

Game Theory comes across like a gentler Joe Jackson on “I Mean It This Time,” and unleashes a nice college rock nugget spiced with squalling synth work in “Curse of the Frontierland.” Completing the portrait of a band settling comfortably into their time and place, there’s an appropriately aching, spectral cover of Big Star’s “You Can’t Have Me,” which is a calling card of impeccable taste for obscure, inspired ancestral artists. Real Nighttime is steady and lovely, ideally crafted to enrapture music fans glued to the left end of the radio dial. It’s also so specifically attuned to those fans that it’s almost impossible to imagine it gaining much traction anywhere else. Some bands of the era shimmered with the possibility of crossover. Game Theory sounded like they were destined to stay put.

 

robbie

653. Robbie Robertson, Robbie Robertson (1987)

In late November of 1976, in the early morning hours, Robbie Robertson stood on stage with the band and played the final notes of “Don’t Do It.” He stepped to the microphone and waved at the crowd as he said, “Thank you. Good night. Goodbye.” The Last Waltz concert was complete and the members of the Band were off to pursue other endeavors. As the chief songwriter of the group, it was widely assumed that Robertson would soon embark on a solo career. Instead, Robertson meandered in his entertainment career, starring alongside Jodie Foster and Gary Busey in the gloomy 1980 drama Carny and serving as music supervisor for several pictures directed by Martin Scorsese, who’d also turned the Last Waltz into a concert film. Even when the time came for Robertson to finally craft a solo album, his pace was slow. He first announced the intention to record in 1983, made preliminary agreements in 1984, hired producer Daniel Lanois in 1985, and started recording in 1986.

Led by the breathless cheerleading of Rolling Stone, by then solidly committing to worshipping any new album dropped by a rocker who qualified as an old hand, Robbie Robertson was met with an enthusiastic reception. Robertson was the beneficiary of MTV airplay and got booked as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. His long history was invoked to highlight the album’s pedigree and the presence of comparative newcomers — including members of U2, BoDeans, and Lone Justice — as guest performers on the record provided the endorsement of cool new kids. Robbie Robertson felt like an event.

If all that attention were puffing up a weak album, it would seem desperate and misguided. Instead, Robbie Robertson is a sterling effort, rich in evocative feeling and graced with remarkably sharp songwriting. Robertson is an iffy frontman, stating songs as much as singing, but the withdrawn emotions suit the material in the same way Tom Waits’s froggy gargle brings the correct personality to his tales of barroom woe. Robertson is more than capable of conveying the quiet pain in ballad “Broken Arrow” and the crushing desire in “Sweet Fire of Love.” His plainspokenness accentuates the humid storytelling of “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” and the resigned recounting of hardscrabble lives on “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight.” As a tribute to doomed celebrities James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe, “American Roulette” probably skews too literal in its lyrics (“Lord, please save his soul/ He was the King of Rock and Roll”), but I’ve never been able to resist its hard rock conviction.

Robbie Robertson didn’t usher in an era of prolific music-making for the performer. Though the follow-up, Storyville, arrived a reasonable four years later, the span between each new album from Robertson grew ever longer. In the thirty years following his debut, Robertson released only three true solo albums.

 

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 — #660 to #657

hunters human

660. Hunters & Collectors, Human Frailty (1987)

In just about every way, Human Frailty was a breakthrough for the Australian band Hunters & Collectors. The band’s fourth studio album represented their first significant hit in their homeland, slipping into the Top 10. It also served as the most significant introduction to Hunters & Collectors in the North American market, thanks to a freshly signed distribution deal with I.R.S. Records. A few months after Human Frailty hit in the Australia, I.R.S. rejiggered the track list and placed it in the mailboxes of college radio stations across the U.S. Finally, both the band and music journalists agreed that Human Frailty was the most effective realization of the Hunters & Collectors musical aesthetic to that point: big, booming rock that lyrically details the many, minor wounds of just existing. Human Frailty was both the album’s title and its central preoccupation.

Human Frailty opens with the grindingly intense of breakup song “Say Goodbye,” establishing the album’s mindset. The grind of life on the road is set alongside striving for happy balance in a relationship and there’s a dawning realization that the two might be magnets pushing against the other. In this respect, and many others, the album can serve as a solid primer of college rock at the very moment it was configuring itself into alternative music in all its edgy gloss. Hunters & Collectors deliver admirably on the tender ballad “Throw Your Arms Around Me,” the jabbing, anthemic “Relief,” and the pop epic of yearning “This Morning.” There are also tracks on which they effectively noodle around with different genres — like twang and funk concoction “Is There Anybody in There?” and transposed rockabilly number “99th Home Position” — but mostly Human Frailty is defined by the way it seems engineered to flow nicely in or out of a U2 hit on the radio.

Bolstered by the success of Human Frailty, Hunters & Collectors continued concentrated writing and recording efforts, issuing a new album in each of the next two years. They also balanced regional success with I.R.S. Records’ attempts to make them break globally, usually with more persnickety tinkering with album titles, packaging, and track lists.

 

joe jumpin

659. Joe Jackson, Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive (1981)

By the early-nineteen-eighties, Joe Jackson was enjoying enthusiastic critical support and enduring only modest record sales. Although his first three albums — Look Sharp, I’m the Man, and Beat Crazy — are filled with pop-rock gems that sound like hits, his singles barely registered on the U.S. charts. Only “Is She Really Going with Him?” founds its way into the Top 40, and it took two tries to get it there with A&M Records reissuing the single one year after its initial release. Everything else to that point fizzled, so Jackson took the most logical approach to appeal to the kids: He put on album comprised entirely of faithful cover versions of forty year old swing music songs.

If it’s reasonable to question the commercial instincts around Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, the real problem with the album is its artistic execution. Jackson’s earnest fandom doesn’t necessarily lead to skillful interpretations of the songs chosen, and a remarkable amount of the album is drab and flat. “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid” is so thin it almost becomes ghostly, and Jackson’s affected rasp can’t disguise overly languid playing on “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” The vocal tomfoolery gets more problematic elsewhere on the album, as tracks such as “San Francisco Fan” skew perilously close to minstrelsy. The album is better when it feels like everyone loosens up a little. “Five Guys Named Moe” is the right sort of playful, though Jackson’s scat singing is notably subpar. Finding palatable moments on the album becomes an aural scavenger hunt. I like the little doses of ivory-tickling on “Tuxedo Junction,” but it’s hard to identify much else that truly works.

Eventually, Jackson himself seemed to sour on the Jumpin’ Jive experiment. When he was asked about the album’s title cut in an AV Club interview, he offered a fairly dim appraisal of the whole project.

“I’ve done quite a few things, especially early on in my career, that I cringe at a bit now, that I’m not necessarily proud of, but at the time, I just said ‘It’s a case of “I want to do this. Fuck you,”‘ Jackson reflected. “I made too many records, and I don’t think the quality is as good as it would have been if I made less. But it’s too late to do anything about that now.”

 

get lucky

658. Loverboy, Get Lucky (1981)

After the collapse of disco’s popularity the pendulum swing of pop music went back in the direction of big, dumb rock music, and Loverboy was all too happy to capitalize on the resulting opportunity. Formed in Calgary, Alberta in 1979, the band was was opening for Kiss within the year and signed to Columbia Records shortly thereafter. Their self-titled debut yielded the major hit “Turn Me Loose” and went multiplatinum. Wasting no time, Loverboy went back into the studio, bashed out several new songs, and released their sophomore album, Get Lucky, less than one year later.

Opening with the party anthem “Working for the Weekend,” Get Lucky immediately positions itself as a go-to record for cheerful knuckleheads prone to mistaking general inconveniences for real angst. Don’t think too hard, the album urges, just slip on your best headband and go. The gruesome power ballad “When It’s Over” and grinding roots rocker “Emotional” (“Use your head/ Give your heart a rest’) tread the well-worn path of love in confusion. Album closer “Take Me to the Top” deploys snaking synths and stretches to an inhuman six minutes. Loverboy wrote most of the songs themselves, but they also got some help from fresh-faced performer Bryan Adams and his songwriting partner Jim Vallance on “Jump,” a lean rock song which, being fair, would probably sound pretty good rasped out by Adams.

Get Lucky is a pretty lousy album. Across the U.S. and Canada, it’s sold over seven million copies to date.

 

lyres fire.jpg

657. Lyres, On Fyre (1984)

Following the dissolution of his band DMZ, one of a slew of acts signed to Sire records in the latter half of the nineteen-seventies in a gamble that punk would be the next big thing commercially, singer Jeff Conolly needed a new outlet for the thrashing, clashing garage rock music he favored. He went to his home base of Boston and formed the Lyres. The group’s debut album, On Fyre, was issued by dinky independent label Ace of Hearts Records, a suitably modest outlet for the rough-and-ready music.

At times, the Lyres seem to aspire to nothing more than providing an echo of the revered Nuggets compilation of low-budget, high-attitude rock ‘n’ roll of the late nineteen-sixties. “Don’t Give It Up Now” is a perfect slab of garage rock, and “I Confess” follows the same architectural plan with some a few girders of sunshiny sixties pop mixed in. The playing sounds rough, but that’s clearly by design, as evidenced by the Lyres’ ability to effectively crank out both the spectacular clatter of “I’m Tellin’ You Girl” or the steady, clean chug of “Soapy.” They pay dutiful tribute to their predecessors with an appealingly slack cover of the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting for You” (using the truncated title “Tired of Waiting”) and also the expert mimicry of “Not Like the Other One,” which could have been excavated from the older band’s formidable catalog.

The Lyres only made a few more studio albums after On Fyre, but the band endured impressively. Except for occasional layoffs, they’ve remained a going concern since their founding.

 

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 — #664 to #661

jason fervor

664. Jason and the Scorchers, Fervor (1983)

“When I came to Nashville, I was looking for a sound with a rural feel to it and a lot of energy, a sound that was American,” Jason Ringenberg told The New York Times around the time EMI America released the Jason and the Scorchers EP Fervor. “I wanted musicians who sounded like they have dirt under their fingernails. And I got all that.”

Technically a reissue with some additional studio work added, Fervor represents the first offering from Jason and the Scorchers after signing a major label deal inspired by the ecstatic fan base the band was building across the Southern U.S. Understandably heaped in with the cowpunk movement gaining steam at the time, Fervor is largely free of the sense of gimmickry that was endemic to some other bands trafficking in the sound. The tracks balance country twang with rock ‘n’ roll clatter in a way that evokes forefathers such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran. It’s not merely a case of impish genre melding. Jason and the Scorchers are dead serious about this music.

Appropriately, the EP is a fine introduction to the band’s methods. The opening track, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” is delivered with a swinging honky tonk sound and Ringenberg’s keening, hiccuping vocals. The retro rocker “Help There’s a Fire” and the forlorn ballad “Pray for Me Mama (I’m a Gypsy Now)” could have pulled from scratchy 45s found in the dustiest corner or the record store. “Both Sides of the Line,” co-written with R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe, shakes free of nostalgic novelty, impressing with its racing rhythm and ferocious guitars. Closing out the EP, it implicitly argues the band has far more in them than might be immediately apparent. The cut is a promise: there’s more good stuff to come.

 

bryan bete

663. Bryan Ferry, Bête Noire (1987)

The prevailing view of Bête Noire, Bryan Ferry’s seventh solo album, was that it would deliver the cult hero some long-deserved mainstream acclaim. Awash in the sort of elegant, grown-up pop music that Steve Winwood had recently leveraged into the greatest commercial achievements of his long career, Bête Noire found Ferry strolling through his expected cool fellow at the upper crust cocktail party creative persona with some light dance music elements fizzing around him like champagne bubbles. Ferry had deliberately tried to modify his sound for wider appeal, recruiting Madonna’s True Blue producer Patrick Leonard to work on the album. The results feel more like tweaks than wholesale reinvention, though. Instead, the pop landscape had circled around to the place where Ferry stood, if ever so briefly.

As speculated — or maybe willed into being by the likes of Rolling Stone — Ferry did enjoy a surge of newfound appreciation due to Bête Noire, most notably when the swerving, swooning single “Kiss and Tell” became the artist’s only solo song to crack the Billboard Top 40. There was maybe only so much snappy success the album was likely to deliver, though. Firmly rooted in its style and filled with tracks that stretch into redundancy, Bête Noire proves to be a fairly dull endeavor.

There are occasional signs of engaged exploration on the album, as with “Day for Night,” which pairs a funky XTC-style beat with Ferry’s spectral vocals to create a true sonic oddity. More often, though, the tracks betray a thinness that’s been laden with studio dressings. Drab “The Right Stuff” and turgid, overburdened “The Name of the Game” are prime examples. “Limbo” might be the most telling cut, because of its surface similarities to David Bowie’s less artistically satisfying work of the era that nevertheless accounted for some formidable hits.

Ferry did what he could to capitalize on Bête Noire, including a fairly extensive touring schedule in support of the album despite his oft-stated aversion to being on the road. Any momentum he built was significantly slowed, and then basically halted, when his efforts to craft a follow-up album stretched on for years. About five years passed before the release of Ferry’s next album, Taxi.

 

lov cow

662. Love Tractor, ‘Til the Cows Come Home (1984)

The mid-nineteen-eighties was a good time for a band to hail from Athens, Georgia. Thanks largely to the foundational success of the B-52s and then the rocketing emergence of R.E.M., the Southern college town was widely seen as a hotbed of transformational music. Outfits with the right zip code were sure to get a listen from college radio programmers, and a remarkable number of them merited the needle drops.

Love Tractor formed in 1980 and counted R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry among its membership in the scrappiest stretch of their early days (he rotated on percussion duties with Kit Swartz, of the local band the Side Effects, depending on the gig). The band initially specialized in instrumentals, which was surely a boon in the college bars where drink specials were as much of a draw as whatever acts took the stage. Love Tractor was trying to expand their sound by the time they released the EP ‘Til the Cows Come Home, their final outing for Georgia-based label DB Records before jumping to Big Time Records. Since the EP was largely comprised of some stray recordings that hadn’t previously found a home, it can be fairly viewed as Love Tractor closing out the early chapter of their career.

As expected, the material on ‘Til the Cows Come Home is agreeable and little inconsequential, easy to enjoy and forget in equal measure. The mildly spooky jangle of “Neon Lights,” a Kraftwerk cover, suggests the variation that could be found in the earthy guitars, easy rhythms, and earnest vocals that were quickly becoming the defining sound of college radio. The gentle pop twang of instrumental “Cutting Corners (Cultural Version)” and amusingly lax funk number “Greedy Dog” make the same argument of versatility, albeit less convincingly. They have the feel of dry runs. All the cuts on the EP play as sincere, uncertain stabs at creation by a band itching to begin anew.

 

reducers go

661. The Reducers, Let’s Go (1984)

College radio reveled in a ridiculous bounty of great records in 1984, including foundational releases by the Smiths, R.E.M., Echo and the Bunnymen, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, U2, and the Replacements, and those are just the acts who released consensus classics in their respective discographies. Yet when it came time for CMJ to anoint just one cut as the year’s best single, the trade publication bypassed all those acts to champion the pumping rock ‘n’ roll of the title cut on the sophomore album from Connecticut band the Reducers, self-released on their Rave On Records label. Erase the hindsight and the selection makes perfect sense. All across the album Let’s Go, the Reducers are a band fully in command of their craft.

Many of the other artists wresting the college charts away from the thunderous drudgery of legacy acts were pushing musical boundaries, but the Reducers were mostly consumed, it seems, with simply making the best, smartest straight-ahead rock record they could. The music is neither retro nor modern, instead achieving the feat of being both at the same time. “Bums (I Used to Know)” is classic rockabilly with a punk aesthetic, and “Rocks” is reminiscent of the Kinks, if they’d kept retreating deeper and deeper into the murk of the garage. “Your Mother” forecasts the tangy punk-pop bubblegum that would be later be created by All.

The understandable CMJ plaudit aside, “That’ll Be Just Fine” might be the clearest example of how the Reducers could edge right up to an absolutely ideal rock song. It has an irresistible drive and a bright tunefulness to accompany lyrics about accepting the heartbreaking dismissal by a romantic partner, complete with a reference to hurtful trodding upon footwear fashioned out of blue suede, eventually taking a hairpin turn to reveal that acceptance is only because of the certainty the jilting lover will return. The cut’s emotions, storytelling, and cracking musicianship converge perfectly.

In addition to the honor bestowed upon their single, the Reducers were deemed the best unsigned band in the college radio at the time. Some interest from the major labels was generated, but nothing quite came together. The Reducers kept putting out records on their own label and touring regional to a devoted batch of fans. There are far worse fates for a band.

 

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 — #668 to #665

rave book

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

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

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

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

 

gun juno

667. The Gun Club, Mother Juno (1987)

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

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

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

 

billy rebel

666. Billy Idol, Rebel Yell (1983)

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

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

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

 

Billy_Idol_1982

665. Billy Idol, Billy Idol (1982)

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

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

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

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #672 to #669

omd pacific

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

john scarecrow

671. John Cougar Mellencamp, Scarecrow (1985)

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

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

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

 

hall oates private

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

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

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

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

 

romantics heat

669. The Romantics, In Heat (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #676 to #673

wire kidney.jpg

676. Wire, Kidney Bingos (1988)

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

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

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

 

ranking radical

675. Ranking Roger, Radical Departure (1988)

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

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

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

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

 

surfers steven

674. Butthole Surfers, Hairway to Steven (1988)

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

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

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

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

 

times square

673. Times Square soundtrack (1980)

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

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

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

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