College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #776 to #773

buzzcocks tension

776. Buzzcocks, A Different Kind of Tension (1979)

Buzzcocks operated with a raw nerve openness (few other bands would be so brazen to release a single called “Orgasm Addict” in the nineteen-seventies), so it makes sense that their final album signals the reverberating conflict that was about to shake the band apart. A Different Kind of Tension is what the album title promised, plausibly reflecting the edgy guitars and squalling melodies that dominated the band’s sound. But it could also be as simple as an admission that the band members’ sometimes divergent outlooks were reaching a point where continuing as a collective was untenable.

In a wonderful way, “Sitting Around at Home” can’t quite settle on which type of tension is best, veering between plodding and racing in its pace. Therein is the dazzling unpredictability of the band. Buzzcocks’ offerings exist in the place between punk and post-punk, less a figure on the evolutionary chart than the atmosphere around the shuffling beings. The post punk burble of “Raison D’etre” is practically a template, but it also somehow exists in its own sweaty, snarled space. The band can the material up with all sorts of studio effects — as with the album’s radio dial sound effects or the weirdo robot voice on the title cut — but the steely spine of expert songcraft running through the tracks is what’s memorable.

“I Don’t Know What to Do with My Life” is a razor wire assessment of the perpetual disappointment of youthful existence, when it seems like the height of foolishness to join a society that refuses to extend a gracious helping hand (“I don’t know what’s gone wrong with my life/ But you know I never do seem to win/ Whenever I think I’ve straightened it out/ It becomes a vicious circle again”). In its capturing of the glum wheel-spinning of a spiked hair, leather-clad generation, the cut could make a claim for being the quintessential Buzzcocks song in the same way “Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me” is the essence of Morrissey’s elegant self-pitying misery, never to be bested. But it exists on very same album with the piquant “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” an unrequited love song that could Pete Shelley’s finest moment as a songwriter.

The breakup of Buzzcocks was probably inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it had to be permanent. Trailblazers in every way, Buzzcocks were one of the bands that helped established the notion of ahead-of-their-time acts returning to the fray after the time finally started to catch up. Reunion gigs started before the eighties were up, and a new studio album arrived in 1993. In all, Buzzcocks released twice as many albums in the revived iteration as they did the first time around.

 

furs all

775. The Psychedelic Furs, All of This and Nothing (1988)

Approximately one decade deep into their career, the time had clearly come from the Psychedelic Furs to break the seal on the fine art of scavenging their recording history for a “best of” album that could be peddled to masses with curiosity piqued by modest hits but unlikely to hunt down selections from the back catalog. Following the attention roused by a rerecording of early single “Pretty in Pink,” for the movie of the same name, Psychedelic Furs made a clear stab at commercial crossover success with the 1987 album Midnight to Midnight, which worked somewhat. It was their highest-selling album in the U.S. and spawned the band’s sole Top 40 single in the U.S.

The single in question, the gloriously dramatic “Heartbreak Beat,” is present on All of This or Nothing, buried deep in the track listing, as if the band was determined to make the unschooled curious run a proper gauntlet of what came before. It’s a version of the mild combativeness built into the band’s persona, exemplified by frontman Richard Butler’s churlish unwillingness to play the music biz game he’d joined. The lax churn of “All That Money Wants,” the requisite new song recorded for the release, was reflective of his unease with playing shows in front of the band’s set of new fans, indifferent to all but the few songs they knew from MTV, though the typically cryptic lyrics can make that difficult to parse (“I’m drowning in my sleep/ Painted lies on broken lips/ That promise heaven tastes like this/ Came home pushed and full of pins”).

In a college radio station library, All of This and Nothing was essential, and it surely did well on the charts as a new release because there were plenty of student programmers excited to play the likes of “Love My Way” and “Heaven” without whatever restrictions might be in place to prevent overly redundant raiding of the broader library. At the station where I earned my FCC operator permit at the time this album was release, “The Ghost in You” would have been allowed on air no more than once a week, but All of This and Nothing‘s place in rotation meant it could instead be played every day. I suspect were weren’t the only broadcast outlet that boosted this record’s airplay because of such a loophole.

At the time of the collection’s release, there was some scuttlebutt that Psychedelic Furs might be winding down, done in by their own success. The end was indeed nigh, but not quite that nigh. The band’s next studio album, Book of Days, came out the following year.

 

green rem

774. R.E.M., Green (1988)

R.E.M. wasn’t the first band to mimic the journey of the students who played them on college radio and take a career step that resembled graduation, but their leap was probably the most momentous. As college radio came of age in the nineteen-eighties, R.E.M. was without question the band. Every album received saturation airplay on the left end of the dial, and the quartet from Athens, Georgia maintained their indie cred through little acts of rebellion, like staying loyal to their original independent label, pointedly refusing to lip sync in music videos, and keeping record sleeves free of printed lyrics. Green didn’t quite change all of that, but it came close.

Following five studio albums with I.R.S. Records, released at roughly a yearly pace, R.E.M. signed a multimillion dollar deal with Warner Bros., about as a large of an entertainment conglomerate to which they could tether themselves at the time. Gifted with more money and studio time then they’d ever enjoyed before, R.E.M. set out to craft an album that pushed them in slightly unfamiliar directions sonically and creatively. It’s heard clearly in cuts “Pop Song 89,” “Get Up,” and “Stand,” all of which had a gloss and bounce not found on the band’s previous records. Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills went so far as to swap instruments at times, eliminating any overt comfort or complacency.

“We wanted to do something a little different, and also to get away from the whole idea that you had to have bass, drums, and guitar to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Buck later said.

“The Wrong Child” pushes into the unexpected by discordantly layering slight instrumental plucking and emotive vocal work, and “Turn You Inside-Out” adds a bruising abrasion that would later come into fruition on Monster. Michael Stipe’s vocal provides the primary texture on “Hairshirt,” which is almost unbearably tender. The untitled closing track is wistful and sweet, and “You Are the Everything” wears the guise of a standard love song while hinting at deeper meaning in its cryptic lyrics. “World Leader Pretend” is the exception to the no printed lyrics rule, suggesting it is the cut that merits the closest scrutiny, a sort of centerpiece to the record.

“For me, the big moment is ‘World Leader Pretend,'” Stipe later told Rolling Stone. “It’s a tribute to Leonard Cohen, using military terms to describe a battle within. I was so proud of the lyrics and my vocal take that I refused to sing it a second time. I did it once. That was it.”

Given the outlay of money given to R.E.M., and the recent blazing success of their contemporaries U2, there was some expectation that Green was meant to be a blockbuster and any other result would be tragic. Instead, the album performed roughly on par with its predecessor, Document, reaching a similar Billboard album chart peak and producing one Top 10 single. The band’s major commercial breakthrough was still one album away. For that one, they started lip syncing in videos.

 

close smile

773. Close Lobsters, What is There to Smile About (1988)

Hailing from Scotland, Close Lobsters shoved their way onto the U.K. music scene in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, exhibiting the sort of brash indifference to their own success that was irresistible to the music press in their home territories. The band’s first album was released in 1987, but the always eager marketplace demanded more. Or maybe the music biz honchos the band answered to were worried about a fickle audience careening away in search of the next big new thing. Either way, Close Lobsters were obligated to deliver an EP as a swaying bridge in between more significant efforts. In this case, the truncated batch of new tracks, entitled What is There to Smile About, is far more than a stopgap. The EP is sharp and scintillating, better than many of the revered album of the era and indeed topping any of the full-lengths released under the band’s name.

The title cut is a chiming, soaring blast of tuneful cynicism, and it’s matched in its cheerful negativity by the single “Let’s Make Some Plans” (the suggestion of the title is explained by the next lyric: “Cuz they can go wrong”). “Violently Pretty Face” is like a vintage Psychedelic Furs song delivered with greater ease and confidence, as if Close Lobsters had comfortably hit the next developmental phase that was eluding their immediate predecessors in the category of brash tunesmiths.

What is There to Smile About suggests that Close Lobsters could have benefited from a slightly different model than the one that took prominence in their era. The U.K. still had a robust trade in singles and EPs, but the album was king in the States. But the tight economy of two short sides and out was perfect from the Close Lobsters’ brand of catchy insolence. As expected, they released an album — the solid enough Headache Rhetoric — one year later. What is There to Smile About is the better, stronger statement of their artistic capabilities. Not every band needs two long sides.

 

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 — #780 to #777

china price

780. China Crisis, What Price Paradise (1986)

When China Crisis set out to record their fourth album, What Price Paradise, they were coming off a release that supposedly conferred upon them a sort of official endorsement from the upper echelon of chrome-plated pop. Walter Becker, of Steely Dan, produced the preceding album, Flaunt the Imperfection, as was instrumental enough to its sound that he was listed an official band member in the liner notes. Hopes of Aja-sized sales numbers failed to materialize, and Becker moved on. China Crisis was back to the outside rim of the record in their attempts to break through.

For What Price Paradise, the band enlisted the producing team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who’d presided over big albums for Madness and had most recently been behind the boards for the full-length offerings that first suggested Elvis Costello might be creatively fallible after all. They brought a crispness to the elegant electronics of China Crisis. There’s little doubt as to the band’s musical personality. It comes through on the album. The real issue is the growing sense that the mannered pop might be already be growing stale.

The album opens with the lounge-tinged “It’s Everything,” quickly demonstrating the limits of the sound as delivered by China Crisis at this point. It simply sounds aimless and a touch inert. That “Arizona Sky” can be fairly characterized as a really drab version of a Thompson Twins track suggests the direness of the situation. There’s no doubt talent on display, as heard in the lush, delicate “Hampton Beach.” But there’s also a default to painfully drippy lyrics that does in a song such as “Best Kept Secret” drippy lyrics (“You dream from the start of bridging two worlds apart/ And love, so they say/ Wins over the coldest heart”). “June Bride” is a notch or two better simply because the band embraces its cheery excess, complete with horn bleats that could be the eighties answer to “Sweet Caroline.”

What Price Paradise struggled to approach the modest success of its predecessors and the China Crisis’s promises dropped yet further with subsequent releases. They kept at it, though. Technically, they never folded and released a few more studio albums, including Autumn in the Neighborhood, in 2015. It was their first new full-length release in over twenty years.

 

New Movement

779. New Order, Movement (1981)

There was no question Joy Division would end once news came in that lead singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide. The post-punk revolutionaries had already come to an agreement that the band didn’t exist without all four members in it. However, surviving bandmates Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner wanted to continue. Sometime shortly after the band played their first gig under the new configuration (according to many sources, billed as the No-Names), their manager, Rob Gretton, saw an article in the British newspaper The Guardian headlined “The People’s New Order of Kampuchea.” The new moniker discovered, New Order took a couple leftover songs and started work on their debut album, Movement.

Clearly and affectingly, Movement is the sound of a band very much in flux. The remaining trio was joined by keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, and they all scrape and poke at a new sonic approach. There are vestiges of their former sound and also an aching strain for reinvention that’s not quite in the band’s grasp yet. Opener “Dreams Never End” sounds exactly the way it should, like Joy Division pretzeling into something new. And then “Truth” shimmies up with a sound that seems yet more removed from what the prior iteration of the group might have conjured up. The impression is of evolution as an aurally traceable process.

Their route unmapped, New Order keeps taking sharp turns across the album. The racing gloom of “Chosen Time” clearly carries some Joy Division DNA, as does the vivacious “Denial,” though the latter could have been switched at the indie rock maternity hospital with some offspring of the Feelies. There are unpredictable elements scattered throughout, such as the nutty space sounds cutting across “ICB” or the thrilling, dizzying shifts in tempo and mood found on “The Him.” In a fitting paradox, the album is unified because of its absolute refusal to gel.

What now sounds like a fascinating new beginning was received at the time as a misguided continuance. The members of New Order largely agreed, and pressed forward with a more concerted attempt at forging their own identity. By the next album, New Order figured out how to make the first word in band name boldly accurate.

 

spandau true

778. Spandau Ballet, True (1983)

To record their third album, Spandau Ballet wanted to get out of London. As banner-carriers for the New Romantic music movement, Spandau Ballet had enjoyed a decent amount of success in their receptive homeland, with four Top 10 U.K. singles drawn from their first two albums. They were sensing an insularity to their creative process, though, and embarked to Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas (Talking Heads were recording Speaking in Tongues at the Caribbean outpost at the same time.) Chief songwriter Gary Kemp wanted to tap into something purer, more classic than the band had mustered before. He wanted to make modern soul music, and so he sat down at took a crack at his own Al Green number. He called the song “True.” It became the album’s title cut and a massive hit, topping the U.K. singles chart and making it up to #4 in the U.S., the band’s first visit to the Billboard Top 40.

“You never know what’s going to make a record work, but there was something about the aural quality of that song that suggested it was just going to be important,” Kemp later said. “Be we still didn’t think it was a single — it was a six-and-a-half-minute track. It was going to be the last song on the album. Can you imagine that now, sticking one of your best tracks last? No one would do that. In those days, though, you approached an album as an actual piece of work, and where you placed your tracks was all about how people heard the piece as a whole.”

Taken in its entirety, True is so beholden to its era that it’s difficult to hear it as much more than a charming, gleaming relic. “Communication” has some of the peppy emptiness of early Wham!, and “Foundation” has especially egregious insertions of the sort of ghastly mellow saxophone that practically carbon dates a cut to the nineteen-eighties. Even as the silky “Code of Love” stirs nostalgia for a time when pop songs might strive for elegance, there’s a pervasive sense that the spark of liveliness is missing. “Gold,” another hit single, sounds like the theme for a James Bond movie in which the secret agent never leaves his desk.

Bolstered by its hit singles, True was a big commercial success, selling more records than anything else in the band’s catalog and earning them a solid — if somewhat fleeting — place on pop radio and MTV playlists. The change of scenery had the desired impact.

 

beat rodeo

777. The Beat Rodeo, Staying Out Late with the Beat Rodeo (1984)

Before the Beat Rodeo served as the name for a band, it was the title of an EP officially credited to Steve Almaas. Recorded in Mitch Easter’s highly influential Drive-In Studio, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the four tracks laid out a musical mission that had serious traction on college radio in the mid-nineteen-eighties. The songs were retro, country-tinged, bopping, catchy, and deeply earnest. A former punk rocker, Almaas liked the approach so much that he recruited a few other musicians, transferred the Beat Rodeo terminology, and worked toward a full-length release.

The band’s debut, Staying Out Late with the Beat Rodeo, was produced by Easter’s cohort Don Dixon. It delivers a brisk batch of songs, pinned to the common concerns of pop music and imbued with a clamorous energy seemingly meant to give a band a fighting chance against clinking barware and building revelry. “Just Friends” is a gem of lovelorn twang, “Who’s Gonna Be Around” has an attention-getting restlessness, and “Take You Home” blast forward with a full-on honky-tonk jolt. The charm ebbs when the songs slow down, as on “Mistake,” but even the weaker material has something to recommend it. “Without You” seems a little drab until the sharp edges of the lyric (“She’s got a lot to do/ And she’s going to do it/ Without you”) start leaving gashes.

An album like this crackled on college radio, but it could be a hard sell elsewhere. The Beat Rodeo even found themselves the focus of Billboard article that was almost entirely concerned with the difficulty of marketing the band’s music. (“Top 40 stations told us, ‘We like their album, but it’s not quite our format,'” a label marketing honcho explains in the piece.) The band released one more album before being dropped from their label and subsequently calling it quits.

 

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 — #784 to #781

aerosmith ruts

784. Aerosmith, Night in the Ruts (1979)

Well before their unlikely mid-nineteen-eighties comeback, Aerosmith was band that didn’t just court disaster. It got down to one knee and gave disaster a full-hearted proposal of marriage at first sight. The Boston band certainly enjoyed hits in the nineteen-seventies, but they’re approach to business side of things was shaky enough that they were burdened by significant debt. Aerosmith was so far in the red that they’re record label pulled them out of the studio midway through the recording sessions for their sixth studio album, A Night in the Ruts, sending them out on the road to raise some bread.

The tour turned out to raise as many problems as it solved, mostly in the form of exacerbating animosities welling up within the band. Before Aerosmith could make it back into the studio, guitarist Joe Perry quit. Many of his guitar parts had already been lain down, but there’d be no additional takes or other finessing. Not that a fresh strum of the six string was likely to fix the material on A Night in the Ruts.

Album opener “No Surprize” might be a raucous recounting of the gig where the band was discovered, but any sense of nostalgic celebration is undercut by lyrics of thundering idiocy (“Midnight lady/ Situation fetal/ Vaccinate your ass/ With a phonograph needle”). “Cheese Cake” could be a Spinal Tap son, and the dreadful cover song  “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” heaves on thick layers of weird hard rock portent. “Three Mile Smile” is solid enough, and the album ends with requisite power ballad “Mia,” which may be marginally redeeming for those who simply want to hear variants of “Sweet Emotion.”

A Night in the Ruts didn’t fare well, and the band’s descent started to resemble a full-on nosedive. More ups and downs would follow in the years ahead. The true rescue mission was still quite a ways off.

 

 

thought

783. The Thought, The Thought (1985)

A Dutch band formed from the remnants of a punk group called the Rousers, the Thought were signed to MCA Records. With their new label, the Thought released their self-titled sophomore effort (following a self-titled debut, to consternation of cataloging completionists, no doubt), a collection of tuneful tracks soaked in a post-punk and new wave marinade. “Stranded with a Stranger” is a proper example of the band’s approach: gentle pop punctuated with understated buzzy guitars, like the Jesus and Mary Chain on a beach holiday. Crossover appeal may have been limited, but this was a crew making music that was going to fit into just about any college radio playlist in the middle of the eighties.

There’s a Peter Murphy swagger to “The Rise and the Fall” and the band’s pop churn is splendidly impressive on “Rapture,” somehow managing to heighten the intense biblical imagery of the lyrics. In the manner of the day, a cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” undergoes full scale transformation into a loopy eighties jam. And the Thought perhaps deserves some credit for anticipating left of the dial trends to come with the sludgy original “Maggie MacColl.”

In general, the material on The Thought is agreeable. That didn’t translate into an enduring legacy. It seems MCA dropped them, and there was only one more album released back home in the Netherlands: The Dream is Me, in 1986. The nondescript band name even makes it peskily difficult to find information about them now. It helps to include the more distinctive names of the band members, such as vocalist and guitarist Cock de Jong. I’m sure there are no problematic outcomes associated with Googling him.

 

 

human hysteria

782. The Human League, Hysteria (1984)

As a rule, bands didn’t let a lot of time pass between albums in the nineteen-eighties. To keep the attention of music fans always eagerly seeking out the shiny and new, bands needed to keep shuttling new tunes into the marketplace. Labels were especially eager to have acts with major hits keep putting out fresh material, while record buyers were presumably at their most susceptible. All that makes it a little remarkable that three years passed between the third and fourth albums by the Human League, especially since that third album included the massive hit “Don’t You Want Me.” There were EPs in between — including Fascination!, which included the hit of the similar name — but there was still a significant amount of pressure on the Human League to finally produce a more full-fledged follow-up.

The pressure had its impact. The recording sessions didn’t go well, which helped inspire the band to choose Hysteria as an album name. That’s how they were feeling. “I’m Coming Back” opens with lyrics that seemingly allude to the impediments causing the album’s delay: “Funny sometimes how you let/ The little things get in your way.” While sticking firmly to the zingy, unorthodox synth pop that brought them enviable success, the band struggles in reestablishing their creative voice. “The Lebanon” finds the group trying on political commentary, and finding it ill-fitting. And the vague air of self-parody to “Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again (Six Times)” doesn’t really excuse its emptiness.

“Louise” takes a shaky stab at recreating the story song success of “Don’t You Want Me.” “Life on Your Own” is far more successful on that front, due to a gentle, absorbing melody and a strong sense that it’s offering a more intricate examination of the heavy weight of tricky personal histories. The earlier smash is invoked in an entirely different way on the album closer. It’s impressively brazen to title a song “Don’t You Know I Want You,” and then pushing it a good distance from the what a listener might reasonably expect. The track builds nicely, coming close to the sort of kitchen-sink-included boisterous romp routinely kicked out by Oingo Boingo.

Hysteria was seen as a disappointment, and not just relative to its predecessor. None of its singles cracked the Billboard Top 40. There were more recording studio agonies to come, but the Human League also had one more big, big hit in them. That was on the way, too.

 

 

peter lights

781. Peter Wolf, Lights Out (1984)

It was no surprise when Peter Wolf struck out on his own in 1984, following about fifteen years as the lead singer of the J. Geils Band. Freeze Frame, the band’s tenth studio album, was a major breakthrough, and Wolf got plenty of the attention that came from it, including the cover of Rolling Stone all to himself, John Warren Geils, Jr. nowhere to be seen. Freeze Frame was released in 1981, its single “Centerfold” spent six weeks on top of the Billboard singles list in 1982, and Wolf was officially out of the band before 1983 came to a close.

Wolf later explained his creative clash with the other band members stemmed from their desire to stick with the more pop-friendly tack taken on Freeze Frame and his preference for the more straight-ahead, blues house rock they’d all but perfected earlier. But Lights Out, Wolf’s solo debut, is right in line with Freeze Frame‘s MTV-friendly polish. The sharp title cut accordingly made it into the Billboard Top 20, one of two singles that year with lyrics that hinged on the phrase “dancing in the dark.” It’s “Here Comes That Hurt” that represents the true core of the album: vintage rock ‘n’ roll with a shiny coat of eighties on it.

“I Need You Tonight” finds Wolf trying to cram every new wave song he ever heard into a single track, and I think “Crazy” is the song you’d get if Bruce Springsteen and Kiss engaged in a marathon songwriting session together. “Mars Needs Women” is a bad idea that, in a baffling happenstance, made it all the way to the record pressing plant without anyone intervening. And “Oo-Ee-Diddley-Bop!” may be the platonic ideal of a Wolf song, all boogie woogie and mildly inscrutable nonsense (“Oo-ee-diddley-dop/ I’m about to blow my top/ Ha, ha, don’t give a damn/ Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha/ Thank you, ma’am”).

Wolf had success striking out on his own, but the band he left behind struggled. Roughly three months after Lights Out, the J. Geils Band released You’re Gettin’ Even While I’m Gettin’ Odd, their first album without Wolf. The album was a commercial dud, and the band broke up the following year.

 

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 — #788 to #785

stevie wild

788. Stevie Nicks, The Wild Heart (1983)

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

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

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

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

 

 

dire communique

787. Dire Straits, Communiqué (1979)

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

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

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

 

 

blue fire

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

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

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

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

 

 

nina in

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

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

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

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

 

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #792 to #789

eric backless

792. Eric Clapton, Backless (1978)

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

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

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

 

 

rundgren healing

791. Todd Rundgren, Healing (1981)

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

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

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

 

 

beat stop

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

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

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

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

 

 

berlin love

789. Berlin, Love Life (1984)

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

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

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #796 to #793

motels_little_robbers

796. The Motels, Little Robbers (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

lou blue

795. Lou Reed, The Blue Mask (1982)

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

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

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

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

 

 

plimsouls

794. The Plimsouls, The Plimsouls (1981)

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

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

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

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

 

 

nick showman

793. Nick Lowe, The Abominable Showman (1983)

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

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

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

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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #800 to #797

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

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

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

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

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

 

pearl harbor

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

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

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

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

 

grateful street

798. Grateful Dead, Shakedown Street (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

 

raunch dang

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

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

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

 

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