College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #860 to #857

faith yourself

860. Faith No More, Introduce Yourself (1987)

Faith No More formed in San Francisco in the mid-nineteen-eighties, essentially as an offshoot of another group called Faith No Man. Three of the band members jumped ship and gave their new outfit a name that essentially conveyed that the “Man” (in the form of the bandmate they abandoned) was “No More.” The trio was in need of vocalist, so they cycled through several possibilities before settling on Chuck Mosley, who’d had some experience playing with bassist Billy Gould earlier. They also added a guitarist Jim Martin and recorded their debut album, We Care a Lot, released on the newly formed independent label Mordam Records in 1985. Comprised of thundering hard rock, the album caught the attention of major labels, and Faith No More was signed to Warner Bros. offshoot Slash Records.

Faith No More’s sophomore release, Introduce Yourself, is also their major label debut. The music is potent and driving. Mosley’s vocals invite the descriptor “acquired taste.” Album opener “Faster Disco” is a characteristic offering: airtight metal riffs with note-adjacent warbling drizzled on top. The closest comparison is found in the teetering trills of John S. Hall in King Missile, but while those loopy croons were — at least somewhat — for  effect, Mosley’s conviction gives every indication he believes he’s a prime belter, bringing added character to the songs. There are the occasional forays into blasé humorous monologues (“Anne’s Song”) or art rock frippery (“The Crab Song,” a weird tale of wrenching heartbreak, starts as almost an abstract radio play, moves to balladic earnestness, then kicks in to pumping rock at the halfway point). Mostly, though, Faith No More operates like the Cult with a lead singer still recovering from a funhouse fever dream.

The galloping “Chinese Arithmetic” and reworked debut album holdover “We Care a Lot” highlight the bands considerable strengths while downplaying the weakness of Mosley’s singing, or at least structuring the song so he’s essentially cast properly. Faith No More might have had cause to make a chance at the center microphone because of that, but it was Mosley’s complicated, combative personality that did him in. Following the tour to promote the album, Mosley was effectively fired from the band, and powerhouse Mike Patton was recruited to take his place. With all the sonic elements better aligned, Faith No More was poised to transcend cult status and enjoy some real commercial success.



lene stateless

859. Lene Lovich, Stateless (1978)

Lene Lovich was born in Detroit, spent her teenage years in England, and emerged as a pop artist in the late-nineteen-seventies with the creative discombobulation of a refugee from a distant, melting galaxy. No frail ingenue (Lovich was pushing thirty when her debut album was released), she had gone through years of art schools, cabaret performances, experimental theatre, and other cultural oddities before releasing her debut solo single, a trio of warped Christmas songs, in 1976. Around two years later, Stateless arrived.

Lovich’s debut album is a fantastic whirligig of pop wonders, drawing on the prevailing styles of the time while twisting them in giddily inventive ways. “Lucky Number,” which became a Top 5 hit in the U.K., is a bubbly, quirky study of moving from solitude to a relationship. Lovich’s vocals call to mind a more eccentric Kate Bush, while the music is in line with the genius, jittery concoctions of XTC at the time. “Say When” has a similar uncoiled agitation, but plied to a spirited chunk of cowpunk. The frothy energy arguably reaches its pinnacle on “One in 1,000,000,” which is a turbine of tunefulness.

Not everything operates at the same breakneck pace. There’s lovely variety to be found, too.  “Tonight” is a winningly retro little gem, and  the foundations of PJ Harvey’s future pop mansion are laid on the urgent “Home.” In the clearest manifestation of Lovich’s creative restlessness, Stateless went through at least three different variants within its first year of existence, undergoing remixes and even full-scale rerecordings of the various songs. The track listing shifted with each new iteration, and the U.S. edition boasted a completely different album cover, complete with a pronunciation guide for Lovich’s name.




Foreigner games

858. Foreigner, Head Games (1979)

Released in the fall of 1979, Head Games gave Foreigner the distinction of releasing their first three albums in three subsequent years, though there were also constantly touring to support music that was immensely popular from the beginning. The first two albums were multiplatinum in the U.S. and delivered six Top 40 hits between them. For their third album, Foreigner was finally able to land regular Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker, who they’d gone after for the prior LPs.

By their own accounting, Foreigner was going for a rawer sound on Head Games, but there’s little that stark or ragged about it. The tracks are so slicked up they practically cast back a reflection. The powerfully inane “Love on the Telephone” and the power ballad “Blinded By Science” are clear kindred spirits of the likes of Journey, Kansas, and other acts storming album rock radio at the time. Then there’s the gross rock star salivating over females, heard in the dopey cataloguing of “Women” (“Women who boil to love, women who need a shove/ Women who can’t be beat, get that woman in the back seat, yeah yeah”) and “Seventeen,” which seems initially seems like a generic lament over a cheating partner before taking the sadly predictable turn of revealing the title numeral refers to the girl’s age. The slimy quality of the latter track is emphasized by the album cover, which shows a sexily dressed girl (teenage model Lisanne Falk, who played one of the Heathers about a decade later) anxiously scrubbing her name and number off a boys’ bathroom wall.

Portions of the album are suitably impressive when held up against similar relics of the era. The title cut has endured reasonably well, and “Do What You Like” anticipates the turn toward chipper, airy guitar pop of the Alan Parsons Project in the eighties, which makes it a little prescient, I suppose. Mostly, though, Head Games is the same old grind that a multitude of bands were dishing out as the Me Decade drew to a unceremonious close.



winwood night

857. Steve Winwood, Talking Back to the Night (1982)

There’s no question Steve Winwood is talented. At a time well before true bedroom pop make the practice a little more commonplace, Winwood created albums on which he played every note of instrument. But he also had some truly dreadful instincts for what made interesting pop music, funneling his creativity into tepid sonic concoctions. Both the gifts and the curse are in full evidence on Talking Back to the Night, his third solo album.

Mainly, Winwood seems cruelly influenced by the most lackluster fusion jazz of the day. “Still in the Game” has the generic filler pinging of a painfully chipper local interest TV magazine program, and “Help Me Angel” plays like the most tepid funk song ever. The track that has the most garish presentation of all that’s going wrong may be “While There’s a Candle Burning,” which is a thorny thicket of fussy synths. The title cut is one of the few on which the elements come together nicely, emitting an arch, constrained cool. And “Valerie” at least hints at the possibility of easy soulfulness Winwood had in him, even if the lyrics offer a disheartening reminder of where the performer’s musical sensibilities are settled (“So cool/ She was like jazz on a summer day”).

Talking Back to the Night was a decent hit for Winwood, but it’s possible that even he sensed a certain hollowness to it, a need to change his approach. It would be three years before his next album, for which he jettisoned the one-man band approach in favor of an  enormous assemblage of collaborators. Unsurprisingly, that album, Back in the High Life, was lauded as a revelatory triumph and wound up as the biggest commercial success of Winwood’s career.


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 — #864 to #861


864. Visage, Visage (1980)

The new wave band Visage had their origins in the simple, noble act of trying to bring David Bowie music to the people. Steve Strange and Rusty Egan (the lead singer and drummer, respectively) successively set up shop at the club Billy’s, in the Soho district of London, and then Blitz, located in Covent Garden. They hosted theme nights, including one devoted to Bowie that was popular enough that the genius chameleon himself enlisted several regulars — and the record-spinners — to appear in the music video for “Ashes to Ashes.”  No fools, Strange and Egan also regularly added their own tracks to the playlist, eventually catching the ear of Buzzcocks producer Martin Rushent, who was signing acts for his fledgling label, Genetic Records. Rushert’s shingle didn’t last long enough to issue a Visage record, but the band’s stylishly booted feet were in the door. By the end of 1980, their self-titled debut was released on Polydor.

Visage is a beautiful, charmed artifact of its time, resplendent in seductive synths and pulsing with post-punk focus. A cousin to other British pop of the era, the album is also markedly its own swirling symphony of electronic music techniques. Some of the airy drive of disco is present, but it’s well into the transformation process into the dance music of the eighties. “Blocks on Blocks” prowls along with flinty assurance, segueing smartly into the cascading instrumental “The Dancer.” Befitting the band’s club origins, the record shifts and shuffles like its trying to keep a night going, developing a consistency while also shifting dynamics just enough to add a little sonic spice.

Adding distinction, the lyrics traipse away from more standard pop fare, such as romantic pining or snarling disaffection. “Tar”  is a grooving riff on cigarettes (“Nicotine stain on your finger/ Try to wash off but it still linger/ Cigarette holder just a joke/ Don’t really take bad away from smoke”), and “Visa-Age”  uses the painful punning of its title as a starting point to extol the pleasures of going on holiday (“Leave the trash, of your life behind/ It’s time to move, shake those ties that bind”). Even when sticking with the pleasures and woes of love, Visage opts for a more novel approach. “Mind of a Toy” equates the discarding of a youthful plaything to relationship rejection (“When a child throws down a toy/ When I was new you wanted me/ Now I’m old you no longer see me”).

Visage made some ripples on the U.K. charts (the high drama “Fade to Grey” was a Top 10 hit), but the band may be more notable for the repercussions it spawned. Billy Currie was part of the band during an uncertain period with his main gig in Ultravox, follow the departure of lead singer John Foxx. In Visage, he met Midge Ure, who he then recruited to step in to take frontman duties in Ultravox, leading to a string of influential U.K. hits in the eighties. Guitarist John McGeoch, who previously logged time in Magazine, went on to join Siouxsie and the Banshees, and bassist Barry Adamson — also a Magazine alumnus — found his way to Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds.



skinny mind

863. Skinny Puppy, Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse (1986)

Mind: The Perpetual Intercourse was the second full-length studio release from Skinny Puppy and the band’s first after their label’s freshly inked distribution deal meant the music would get a more robust push. That also meant they were more likely to come under the churlish scrutiny of the self-appointed defenders of youthful music fans’ precarious innocence. The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) put the album on their list of the ten most grievous offenders in late 1987, alongside for more prominent recordings, such as The Beastie Boys’ License to Ill and Mötley Crüe’s Girls, Girls, Girls. Evidently the main problem was a cover image including a blurry snapshot of a pornographic movie playing on a television. If the perpetually aghast moral arbiters had slipped the album out of its sleeve and onto a turntable, they surely started to shudder over the abrasive sounds that resulted.

A decent amount of the material on Mind sounds relatively tame now, and not just because a track like “One Time One Place” sounds as if it’s hammering out the template for the Nine Inch Nails offerings that would crossover just a few years later. There’s a lot of fuss to Skinny Puppy’s cacophony of caustic tones. “Stairs and Flowers” is a ratty bird’s nest of sounds, pushing against the safety of pop music, sure, but also becoming an uninspired mash. Then there’s the odd side effect of so much material being shoved into each song that weird echoes come into play, as when “Three Blind Mice” opens with a synth riff that almost sounds as if its waiting for the Thompson Twins to start trilling. The aural mirage drops quickly when Nivek Ogre’s vocals show up instead, of course.

Equally inevitably, some elements are arresting and cool. I’m fond of the way the anxious Twilight Zone samples fit up against the faulty ignition rhythms of “200 Years.” And the grinding guitar of “Dig It” puts hard rock muscularity into a excitingly different context. The industrial grind of Skinny Puppy could get tedious quickly, but there was always just enough murky inspiration in there to make something stand out.



slick dreams

862. Grace Slick, Dreams (1980)

It’s admittedly exhausting to track the membership shifts of Jefferson Airplane and its many offshoots. The Wikipedia page for Jefferson Starship currently lists twenty-seven different members over the years and lists twenty-six distinct lineups. By all appearances, Grace Slick was in between two separate tours of duty with the band when she recorded and released Dreams, her second solo album. It’s probable that she expected this to be beginning on an ongoing, uninterrupted path forward as her own performer. Instead, she was back with her compatriots within a year, which was mere precursor to yet more dire collaborations to come.

As heard on Dreams, Slick is a competent, but relatively indistinct performer. The album is somewhat of its time, seemingly trying to vaguely replicate the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s bazillion selling records without have the tumultuous energy to really pull it off. Roughly the first half of the records was crafted entirely by outside songwriters, which probably contributes to the sense of the drift. The album opening title cut sounds like an audition to provide songs for The Greatest Showman, just forty years too early.Written by Sean Delaney — who was a go-to creator for the members of Kiss as they cranked out albums at a headlong page in the nineteen-seventies — the song is theatrical, eager, and a little numbing.

Slick’s own compositions begin with “Seasons,” the last track on side one. (It’s sometimes credited online as the handiwork of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but their own “Seasons” is a very different song.) It sounds a little like Slick is trying to merge the fulsome folk rock of her heyday with the tangy Eastern European flavors of a Bolshevik novel (“Then the sun comes high and the spring rains come and go/ The summer air so hot it melts the Russian snow/ The fields are brown there’s no rain to make them grow/ And the old ones sigh, the heat has made them tired and slow”). It’s odd, but at least it feels unique. The rest of Slick’s writing is piled up on the second side. The mild blues rock number “Do It the Hard Way” is agreeably reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s seventies work, but a lot of material blurs together. And then “Garden of Man” arrives and tips the album over into full-scale meandering hippie mode (“Harmony is in your hand/ If we will believe/ Sweet Promises of fantasy/ That comes from every land”).

Slick delivered two more solo albums in the next few years, but it appeared her heart wasn’t really in it. From the outside, it seemed she was more comfortable as a co-pilot.



washington squares

861. The Washington Squares, The Washington Squares (1987)

In the New York City of the nineteen-eighties, still hungover from the bludgeoning jabs of punk and the stimulated extravagance of disco, the retro stylings of a genial folk trio must have felt like a cool compress on a throbbing headache. Playing around the city, the Washington Squares donned matching striped shirts and rakish berets while strumming out their spirited ditties. The band’s official bio emphasizes a lightly ironic, post-modern tone to their music, but it’s difficult to discern in the actual material on their self-titled debut. Whether refreshing or stale, they sound like they were scooped up from the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early nineteen-sixties and dropped without provisions into the pop war zone of hair metal and post-post-punk that existed twenty-five years later.

“Can’t Stop the Rain” offers solid folk pop with a touch of eighties studio polish, and the easygoing “You Can’t Kill Me” bears a resemblance to Bob Dylan’s material when he’s at his flinty loosest. In general, the Washington Squares keep the music upbeat, quick strumming all the better for foot-tapping singalongs, I suppose. “Samson & Delilah” revs like a humming motorcar, and “Lay Down Your Arms” has some of the jaunty charm that defined the best of the Housemartins. The Washington Squares was produced by Mitch Easter, the master of crisp college rock records, and the record has a eager, warm quality that couldn’t be faked.

The Washington Squares released their sophomore album, Fair and Square, in 1989. That proved to be their last release, in part because of looming tragedy. Band member Bruce Jay Paskow was a recovering heroin addict, and he discovered he’d contracted AIDS, presumably from shared needles years before. He died in 1994. The remaining members recruited some fellow musicians and played one last show in tribute to their fallen friend that 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 — #868 to #865

laurie united

868. Laurie Anderson, United States Live (1984)

”Since I tour a lot, especially in Europe, ‘I’ve frequently found myself sitting across the dinner table from people who ask me, ‘How can you live in a country like that?,'” Laurie Anderson told The New York Times Magazine thirty-five years ago. “I really am on the defensive a lot of the time, and I need to have some way to deal with that.”

Anderson was featured in the publication roughly concurrently with the first full performance of her massive, monumental United States. The four part, eight hour production premiered over two nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 1983. Incorporating music previously released by Anderson (“O Superman,” by then a beloved cult hit, gets its turn), the piece interweaves songs, sounds, and spoken word monologues across four parts — roughly themed to transportation, politics, love, and money — enhanced by Anderson’s marvelous, inventive visual sense. It was performance art with equal emphasis on both words.

“The idea was to make a big portrait of the country,” added to the Times Magazine, articulating a grand ambition with charming modesty.

A few years earlier, Anderson entered into an unlikely pact with Warner Bros., and, to the label’s credit, United States was seen as an opportunity rather than an unrelated project from one flickering light in their galaxy of stars. Although it was sure to sell only modestly, United States Live was issued as a five-LP box set. (Prince’s Purple Rain spent the last five months of 1984 in an uninterrupted streak at the top of the Billboard album chart, so Warner Bros. was making its money elsewhere.) The work was necessarily condensed, but it was really only the visually driven elements that were left aside. If it could at all work on record — whether musical or simple recitation — the material was transferred over, then enwrapped in packaging that further conveyed Anderson’s distinctive, striking sensibility.

Anderson has no shortage of much-loved works to her credit across a long, storied career, United States arguably still stands as her magnum opus. And United States Live is itself a vitally important artifact, arguably the only serious attempt to capture and preserve the near totality of one of her larger pieces.



tackhead tape

867. Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System, Tackhead Tape Time (1987)

Bassist Doug Wimbish, percussionist Keith Leblanc, and guitarist Skip McDonald are embedded deeply in the layers of sediment that make up the foundation of hip hop. They were all in the house band of Sugar Hill Records, which led directly to their presence on the monumental single “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Aside from their studio work, the trio started playing together, eventually collaborating with producer Adrian Sherwood to develop into an act that would be called Tackhead. They started working with Gary Clail, an English MC who was developing a fervent following in the mid nineteen-eighties. Billed together as Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System, the collective released Tackhead Tape Time,  a dizzying assemblage of fierce beats with yet fiercer political commentary.

Album opener “Mind at the End of the Tether” is a fever dream of festering rhythms and excavated audio, propelling the listener into a state of sweaty agitation. This serves as a sort of mission statement of the group, shuffling flares of awareness into a track that could keep a dance floor active. They weren’t particularly oblique in their diatribes, either. At times, the tracks play like manifestos with music — no matter how layered and complex — added as an afterthought. “What’s My Mission Now? (Fight the Devil)” opens with cries of “Saigon!,” before piling up samples of commentary on the military industrial complex.

If there is an occasional lapse into didactic redundancy, the thrilling music of Tackhead usually salvages the material. “Man in a Suitcase” features dreamy electronic waves key-scratched by rapid trills, manipulated samples, and comet tail flares of sound. The thumping “Reality” gives the impression that it is only the kind restraint of the musicians that keeps the cut from reverberating speakers into a heap of shards. After going their separate ways, Clail would do just fine for himself, delivering several club hits, but it was clearly Tackhead that had something more pertinent to contribute to the emerging music style. Within a couple years, Tackhead released Friendly as a Hand Grenade, a full-length studio effort that didn’t sell a lot of records, but was widely regarded as a peak of the form.



bob distance

866. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, The Distance (1983)

Detroit rocker Bob Seger was a fairly prolific songwriter throughout much of the nineteen-seventies, but he started to slow down as the next decade dawned. The situation was perhaps partially attributable to the pressures of success. Across the studio albums Stranger in Town, released in 1978, and Against the Wind, on record racks beginning in 1980, Seger had seven Top 40 hits. Even the 1981 live album helped Seger push to the top of the singles charts, with the cover “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You.” Previously Seger could just bang out songs of teenage longing and ragged nostalgia. Now there was an expectation that those songs were going to be hits. Reportedly, the album The Distance, tallied as Seger’s twelfth overall, took over fourteen months to record, most of that time eaten up by the agonizing effort to come up with new songs.

In the end, though, Seger thought he had enough to make a double album, a prospect he was previously loath to explore, having gone on record insisting that, since The Beatles, every rock ‘n’ roll studio effort that sprawled to four sides would have been better pared down to a single LP. In particular, Seger tried to push himself in different directions in his songwriting, pursuing approaches that were outside of his well-established norm. His label pushed back somewhat, convincing Seger to jettison the less characteristic tracks to get down to a single album. As a result, The Distance winds us as such a quintessential example of Seger’s craft that it’s practically a cliche. “Even Now” is the track a powerful computer would create if every Seger song that preceded it was fed into its AI interface. Asked to repeat the experiment, the computer would spit out “Roll Me Away.”

Even so, The Distance does offer some inkling of the different byways Seger’s career could have followed. “Shame on the Moon,” a cover of a Rodney Crowell song, mellows Seger’s usual approach with a little country ease. Remarkably, it became Seger’s highest charting single to that point. (Ever more surprising, Seger’s sole chart-topper was the utterly forgettable Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack contribution “Shakedown.”) The hoedown-friendly version of Seger isn’t earth-shaking, but it offers more intrigue that the drippy balladeer of “Coming Home” or the bored, slicked up rockabilly riffing of “Making Thunderbirds.”

The album was another hit for Seger, yielding three Top 40 singles and selling enough copies to continue a string of platinum albums that began with Beautiful Loser, released in 1975. It didn’t return the previous speed of his creativity, though. At a time when artists were still expected to keep a fairly narrow window between releases, it would be another four years before Seger’s next full-length studio album.



jam dig

865. The Jam, Dig the New Breed (1982)

In October of 1982, Paul Weller announced the Jam was coming to an end. Across six studio albums and a bevy of starting singles, the brash fellows from Surrey, England had defined the Mod Revival movement in the U.K., combining refined songcraft with punk energy to make driving, delirious music. At the time Weller dropped the news, he also laid out details of a brief farewell tour, setting the band’s final performance for December 10, 1982. On that very day, the album Dig the New Breed hit shops. A collection of live tracks from across the band’s brief but grand history, the album served as a sharp closing bow. Listen up, lads, music like this may not come your way again.

If the album was vital in the moment for its sense of finality, it is now merely another live album, marginally different from the four others that followed in the decades since. And that doesn’t include the bounty of other collected and archival material released under the banner of the Jam, the shards of history compensating for the band’s stubborn resistance to following their contemporaries into the lucrative business model of reunion efforts. Of course, the album’s loss of individual distinctiveness doesn’t necessarily rob it of its thrills. The Jam was a forceful act on stage, and Dig the New Breed dutifully captures the smack of their music.

“Set the House Ablaze” is especially fierce on this recording, and the timeless “Going Underground” similarly hits hard. In general, the Jam is awash in performance personality across the album, typified by Weller’s deceptively simple vocal calisthenics on “Big Bird.” And, as one would hope on such an album, there are moments when the material is gratifyingly eye-opening. I often forget about the inherent toughness of the Jam’s music, but the Dig the New Breed version of “Dreams of Children” opens with a burbling blast of guitar noise that I could easily mistake for the handiwork of Bob Stinson at the height of the Replacements’ reckless youth.

Dig the New Breed is good enough to have the precise effect the band likely intended. As the Jam closed their guitar cases, it makes the listener long for just a little more.


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 — #872 to #869

sting sun872. Sting, …Nothing Like the Sun (1987)

These days, I’m as prone as anyone to treat the performer born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner as a punchline of uncoolness, sitting swaddled in a couture turtleneck on some sprawling, misty English estate. Back in the nineteen-eighties, though, (as well as deeper into the nineties than I’m currently prepared to admit) I was an acolyte of the former Police-man, certain that his jazz-flirtation approach to rock was the epitome of high class modern musical artistry. I was hardly alone. Sting’s second solo outing, …Nothing Like the Sun, was met with an enraptured reception, marked by critics extolling its intricate virtues.

I think it’s fair and accurate to say that …Nothing Like the Sun has aged better than its immediate predecessor, Dream of the Blue Turtles, if only because its songs offering political commentary on current events — such as “Fragile,” inspired by an innocent man who became a casualty of the Nicaraguan conflict, and “They Dance Alone,” about women whose loved ones were among the disappeared in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile — are far more adept than the outraged middle school essay that is the earlier “Russians.” At the time, Sting was highly enamored with jazz-influenced arrangements, an understandable impulse when an ace player like Branford Marsalis is drawing a paycheck in the backing band. Sting’s version tipped toward the tepid, though. Sometimes the gentle touch fits well, as on the charming Quentin Crisp tribute “Englishman in New York” (a minor hit as a single, but now arguably the album’s most enduring track). Just as often, Sting’s approach could result in “Sister Moon,” mostly notable for its ability to grow tedious despite a running time under four minutes.

The album was largely written while Sting was in mourning for his mother, who died in 1986. There’s a slightly ruminative quality to much of the material, a somberness that plays as welcome restraint rather than dourness. Even as the material lolls across four vinyl sides (the length of …Nothing Like the Sun was clearly designed for the extra space available on the new-fangled compact disc technology), it ultimately feels less indulgent than what occasional came before from Sting, and definitely less so than what was to come. The songs could be playful (“We’ll Be Together,” the album’s sole Top 10 hit, and “Rock Steady”), fulsome yet balanced (“The Lazarus Heart”), or tender (“The Secret Marriage,” which borrows a Hanns Eisler melody.) The only grievous misstep is a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” that manages to jettison any sense of longing or passion.

By any measure, …Nothing Like the Sun was a major success for Sting. It was certified double platinum in the U.S. and nabbed him three Grammy nominations, including his second straight Album of the Year nod. (In general, the Recording Academy has shown embarrassing devotion to Sting, bestowing upon him forty-four nominations and sixteen wins over his career, including trophies for decidedly subpar material.) Any stubborn skeptics who felt Sting wouldn’t prosper away from the Police had no choice but to cede. For better or worse, Sting wasn’t going anywhere.



swimming blue

871. The Swimming Pool Q’s, Blue Tomorrow (1986)

While Athens was the Georgia city renowned for a steady-flowing pipeline of great bands during college radio’s nineteen-eighties heyday, Atlanta had a few local heroes of their own. The Swimming Pool Q’s formed in the late nineteen-seventies and quickly developed a reputation as a strong live act, earning support gigs for major acts, including the southern swing of the first major U.S. undertaken by the Police. They released their debut album, The Deep End, on the Atlanta indie label DB Records in 1981. Some lineup shuffling followed, and the group snagged a major label contract with A&M Records.

Blue Tomorrow was the sophomore outing for Swimming Pool Q’s as part of the A&M stable. Working with producer Mike Howlett — who oversaw the Alarm’s breakthrough release, Strength, as well as the first couple A Flock of Seagulls albums — the band delivers a wide-ranging records that sounds agreeably like a primer of all the different sounds that were popping on college radio in the middle of the eighties. While maintaining a strong sense of identity, the band roams and rollicks, often injected sly comedy into the lyrics and building music of inventive homage.

The predominant sound of Blue Tomorrow is a wry, jangly take on country rock. It’s firmly present in the title cut, as well as the thumping “Laredo Radio.” The latter track has the sort of opening couplet that bands spend entire careers trying to craft: “Well, the sound is up/ And my fortune’s down.” Merging that sonic personality with their home region, “Big Fat Tractor” sounds like the product of a joyful partnership between the Beat Farmers and the B-52’s. There’s a nice churning guitar on “She’s Looking Real Good,” and “More Than One Heaven” has an easy propulsion. The latter track features lead vocals by Anne Richmond Boston, who regularly trades off on those duties with Jeff Calder. She has a tonal quality equally rich and ethereal, which can give her tracks — such as the mildly Celtic twirl “Now I’m Talking About Now” — an soaring quality atop the straightforward guitar pop, as if Kate Bush had decided to tour scruffy college bars with the Connells as a backing band.

Blue Tomorrow is terrific, but the sales weren’t strong enough to satisfy A&M Records. The band was dropped, and Boston left to pursue solo efforts. The Swimming Pool Q’s eventually signed to Capitol and released one more album (World War Two Point Five, in 1989) before settling into a long hiatus, although Calder maintains the band was a going concern the whole time, just a little quiet in stretches.



gene immigrant

870. Gene Loves Jezebel, Immigrant (1985)

Immigrant was the second full-length release from Gene Loves Jezebel, and it represented a clear strike at making a commercial breakthrough. Producer John Leckie was brought in to oversee the recording, and though he wasn’t precisely someone with a knack for hits, his sterling reputation was built on helping somewhat prickly artists — such as XTC and the Fall — shape a more approachable sound. Headed by twin brothers Jay and Michael Aston, Gene Loves Jezebel specialized in an especially odd brand of goth rock. There’s a fine sheen to Immigrant, but there was probably only so much Leckie could do.

Album opener “Always a Flame” sounds like Cocteau Twins with a trashy streak and maybe a few pints in them. That’s entertaining, but it’s very much an ear-of-the-beholder situation as to whether or not it’s all that good. For all the polish, Immigrant is defiantly, consistently challenging, in its layers of potentially off-putting elements rather than engrossing complexities. The lead vocals on “Shame” are a true endurance test, coming across as some keening, whining version of a cartoonish late night horror movie host. And the very weird “Cow” (“Did you see the cow with the furrowed brow?/ He’s laughing out”) almost offers a surly condemnation of anyone who’d dare try to discern its meaning. Tracks like those make the drab goth wallow “Coal Porter” almost a relief. It may also be messy, but at least the lyrics open with a scrutable thesis statement: “Why can’t I have you again?/ Why can’t we be such friends?”

The clattering mediocrity of the album — and a decent amount of the band’s other output — is part of the reason the long afterlife of Gene Loves Jezebel is far more interesting than anything they pressed onto record back in the day. The Aston brothers might actually top the Davies, the Fogertys, and Gallaghers in the storied annals of rock ‘n’ roll familial dysfunction. Always contentious, the Astons broke away from each other for good in the late nineties, each persisting with separate and yet identically named versions of Gene Loves Jezebel.



utopia swing

869. Utopia, Swing to the Right (1982)

In the early days of the Reagan Revolution, Todd Rundgren and his cohorts in Utopia were angry about the state of the world. With clear-eyed assessment of the rampant avarice that existed behind the veneer of patriotic aspiration in the Republican party’s new rhetoric, the group crafted a set of songs that attacks the myth-making with angry satire. Titled Swing to the Right, the album was delivered to the band’s Bearsville record label. Albert Grossman, head of the label, was already irritated with Utopia, due to the way it diverted Rundgren from his solo work — which sold significantly better than those with his side group — and the bruising reception of their 1980 album, Deface the Music, which aggressively spoofed the Beatles. A new collection of highly political pop songs was just another indignation. Grossman shoved Swing to the Right aside, waiting almost a year before releasing it.

If anything, the album became more timely in the interim, as was clear on the scathing title cut. With lavish production and cheery harmonies, Utopia delivers the grotesque message of Reagan and his disciples: “Don’t want to hear what the povertous expect from me/ Let ’em eat cake if they feel that way/ I gotta work why should I have to pay for that?/ And I don’t want to be left holding the bag for them.” This credo is effectively countered toward the end of the album, when the ballad “Only Human” calls for sympathetic understanding of common shortcomings.

In between, Utopia offers their own dismayed state of the union, bucking against war culture on “Lysistrata” and swiping at resurgent shamelessness among the capitalists with a rubbery cover of the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” leading straight into “Last Dollar on Earth,” a condemnation of greed encased in a uniquely abrasive new wave song. Across the album, Rundgren’s nearly peerless studio technique is evident, even when (or maybe especially when) he’s playing around with sidelong musical parody, as on “Junk Rock,” which sounds like a poke at Devo.

Perhaps influenced by the label’s lack of enthusiasm for the album, Swing to the Right was the weakest charting release in the Utopia catalog to that point. As though making amends for the combativeness, the next Utopia album was self-titled, promising nothing more than the expected doses of characteristic big, bold pop. There was one change Rundgren made sure was in place, however. He made sure Utopia was freed of their commitment to Bearsville. The album was released by Network Records, with no undue delay.


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 — #876 to #873

trees lantern

876. Screaming Trees, Invisible Lantern (1988)

“When we did Invisible Lantern, we were probably ready to call it quits,” Van Conner, bassist of Screaming Trees, once acknowledged. “We all had crap jobs, and had no future. You weren’t making any money in a band like that — we were supporting our ‘band habit’ by having a job. You had to take it really seriously to keep it going and sacrifice everything.”

The Screaming Trees had only been slugging it out for three years in 1988, but, in the manner of the day, they were already up to their third full-length album. Hailing from the state of Washington, the band was a natural fit on the SST label, itself only a decade old and already firmly established as the prime source for a particular brand of pummeling rock music, informed by punk, but with a more expansive sonic palette. A few years later, the geography of the Screaming Trees homeland combined with their proclivity for thick arrangements of buzzing guitars to corral them into the grunge movement. The reality was was more complicated, though. Especially early on, they were mad rock deconstructionists, making psychedelic-tinged garage rock that seemed to be rattling apart like a tin jalopy on a rutted road. It’s no wonder they had fervent followers and yet couldn’t quite break through in way that made their guitar-slinging profitable.

Album opener “Ivy” crystallizes the Screaming Trees sound: pummeling hard rock with a psychedelic waver to the guitar line. They were also inclined toward the late-sixties rattled grooviness in the lyrics. The waterfall of guitars on “Lines & Circles” are met with hippie-dippie lyrics — “Crystal faces on a windowsill/ I can hear them whisper slowly/ Like the chill wind/ That moves around this room I’m in” — almost goading listeners into trying to combine pogoing with loose-limbed spins. At times, the real challenge is figuring out which sonic instinct is winning out.

The music also manages to combined lushness with sheer loud rock impact, as on the marvelously gloomy “Grey Diamond Desert” and the thudding “Smokerings.” A minor forecast of how the band would eventually crossover resides in the slick, potent “Even If,” but “The Second I Awake” might be yet more telling, if only because it sounds a little like fellow unlikely hitmakers Soul Asylum, if they were trying to prove their nimbleness. Album closer “Night Comes Creeping” is awash in fierce, jubilant layers. Invisible Lantern doesn’t sound all that much like the product of a band feeling weary of the futile grind of rock ‘n’ roll. Instead, it has the charge of explorations that are still yielding discoveries.



andy white

875. Andy White, Rave On Andy White (1986)

For a Belfast-born singer-songwriter with a folk bent emerging onto the public consciousness in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, addressing “The Troubles” was probably a prerequisite. And so it was for Andy White, who made his debut with the EP Religious Persuasion, on the revered Stiff Records label, in 1985. The title cut, which was released as single, offered White’s direct consideration of the conflicts roiling Northern Ireland. It was enough of a hit in the region that it was considered a coup to get him to recreate the original music video a couple years ago.

“Religious Persuasion” carried over to White’s full-length debut one year later, nestled in the center of a big batch of originals with similar sensibilities. It’s not only the presence of a similar accent that makes the material on Rave On Andy White sound like a preview of what Luka Bloom would emerge with a few years later. On tracks like “Vision of You” and “The Walking Wounded,” my personal chronology with Irish solo performers striding onto the college charts, I can’t help but think of White as delivering a less hopped-up version of what would land with Bloom’s Riverside.

White’s music is probably more fairly compared to the other famed performers who made their way with little more than a guitar, a harmonica, and a knack for pointed rhymes. These are the same scruffy troubadours to whom all the folk fellows were expected to tip their battered hats. “Reality Row” has a modernized Bob Dylan vibe, and the plaintive harmonica on “Tuesday Apocalypse #13” naturally calls to mind Neil Young. It might have been well-trod territory, but White did well by himself scuffing his boots in those footsteps. Rave On Andy White is a small beauty.



david boomtown

874. David + David, Boomtown (1986)

David Ricketts was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In the late nineteen-seventies, he moved to Los Angeles, where he found employment building sets on Hollywood studio lots and cast around for like-minded musicians up for collaboration.

David Baerwald was born in Oxford, Ohio. In the late nineteen-seventies, he moved to Los Angeles, where he became the frontman for a local band called Sensible Shoe and cast around for different like-minded musicians up for collaboration.

Ricketts and Baerwald began working together in 1984, settling on a band name based upon their shared moniker. The collaboration went smoothly, but Baerwald was simultaneously dealing with a significant struggle with the law. He later recounted he was spending his days in court and his nights working through material with Ricketts. Baerwald was found guilty of the crimes, but a letter from A&M Records helped him escape significant jail time. “I ended up skating with time served, probation, and community service,” Baerwald said. “So I owed them.”

Part of the payment was a hit record. “Welcome to the Boomtown,” the lead single from David + David’s debut, Boomtown, was one of those songs that seemed to be everywhere, although it was only a modest performer on the charts, peaking at #37. Glossy and heavy with mood, the track had a novelistic toughness about it, recalling any number of Bruce Springsteen songs that spun grim romanticism out of low-level malfeasance. Follow-up single “Swallowed by the Cracks” had a similar sense of tuneful grittiness, giving the impression that Baerwald and Ricketts were weatherbeaten storytellers using guitars and amps instead of oil-dappled manual typewriters.

Much of the rest of Boomtown is fairly drab by comparison, lacking a sharpness that helps the first two singles transcend the shiny eighties production. “Ain’t So Easy” has a weird, burbling dance music undercurrent, as if a Howard Jones song is trying to break free, and “Being Alone Together” aspires to the cool shimmy of solo Bryan Ferry, but has leaden, often overly literal lyrics (“All those souvenirs/ Taking up closet space/ She stands in the doorway/ Hot tears rolling down her face”). There are decent relaxed bluesy turns on “All Alone in the Big City” and “Heroes.” Too often, though, David + David are undone by pushing for intensity that seems beyond them. The vocals on “River’s Gonna Rise” are supposed to register anguish, I think. They have more of a grinding gears quality.

The David + David discography stops at a single entry, but the two remained separately involved, mostly behind the scenes, in the Los Angeles music scene. Most notably — and perhaps tellingly — they were among the many songwriters credited on Sheryl Crow’s huge album Tuesday Night Music Club.



henley stand

873. Don Henley, I Can’t Stand Still (1982)

The Eagles sold so many records. Somewhat infamously, Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975) still jockeys with Michael Jackson’s Thriller for the title of biggest-selling album in U.S. history. (Both are at 29 million copies and counting.) It can’t entirely be chalked up to misguided Baby Boomer nostalgia, either. The band was a chart force when they were still making new music. The Long Run, the Eagles’ final full-length studio effort until lucrative reunions beckoned many years later, spent nine straight weeks on top of the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 10 singles, including the #1 hit “Heartache Tonight.”

The Eagles broke up in highly messy fashion in 1980. The individual band members were still bound to Elektra Records, so the inevitable solo albums were under that broad banner. Of the band’s primary songwriters, Glenn Frey was first to record racks, releasing No Fun Allowed in May, 1982. Don Henley followed two-and-a-half months later with his own solo debut, I Can’t Stand Still.

Frey did his best to keep the Eagles vibe going, collaborating with Jack Tempchin, the songwriter who regular fed tunes to the band, including the hit “Peaceful Easy Feeling.” Henley was presumably more determined to distance himself from what had come before. Finding his own new creative partner in ace session guitarist Danny Kortchmar, Henley made music that often abrasive rejected the mellow, country-influenced sound of his earlier. “You Better Hang Up” deploys a ostentatiously grinding guitar riff as Henley sings with a nonchalant swagger that suggests John Waite with less rock credibility. it’s not all tough stuff, though. “Talking to the Moon,” co-written with J.D. Souther, offers a maudlin reminder that Henley was the main creative voice behind “Desperado.”

The album’s high point also brought Henley his first significant solo hit, and let him claim first blood in whatever war for post-Eagles supremacy he might have had with Frey. “Dirty Laundry” made it into the Top 5 on the Billboard singles chart and topped the rock chart. Fervent and muscular, the song works in large part because it effectively channels the caustic worldview that’s clearly part of the lining of Henley’s soul. No matter how many records the Eagles sold with their genial ramble-tamble coastline drives, rock is usually better when it lets the anger show.


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 — #880 to #877

idol stop

880. Billy Idol, Don’t Stop (1981)

The bloke born William Michael Albert Broad was exceedingly comfortable returning to promising material until it finally turned into a hit. Taking the stage name Billy Idol because his school teachers routinely derided his lack of ambition and referred to him as “idle” (he claimed his first choice was in fact Billy Idle, but there was concern it would stir confusion because with a famous member of the Monty Python troupe), the spiky coifed singer launched a solo career after a tenure with the glammy punk rock band Generation X. For his solo debut, the EP Don’t Stop, Idol nicked a song from his former band called “Dancing with Myself.” He didn’t record a new version, choosing instead to remix the Generation X version. It became his first solo single.

As had been the case with Generation X, the single didn’t make much headway on the charts. It was rereleased as a single in 1983, after Idol’s self-titled full-length became a hit, yielding two entries in the Billboard Top 40. Once again, “Dancing with Myself” couldn’t push through, peaking at #102. These days, it’s retrospectively considered one of Idol’s major songs of the era.

On Don’t Stop, Idol also planted the seed for his biggest U.S. hit. The EP included a remarkably faithful take on the Tommy James and the Shondells’ song “Mony Mony.” At twice the length of the original, it also failed to breakthrough as a single, but Idol included a live version on the hits collection Idol Songs. The live cut became Idol’s sole single to top the U.S. charts, knocking another Tommy James cover from the peak position in the process.



rats birth

879. Good Rats, Birth Comes to Us All (1979)

Former by a batch of schoolmates in Queens, New York, in 1964, Good Rats was one of those bands that prospered in the scruffy environs of nineteen-seventies FM radio without ever tapping the elusive magic required for a broader breakthrough. They toughed it out on the road, often playing hundred of shows every year, and released a batch of bruising hard rock albums through the decade. Suffused with ambition, Birth Comes to Us All likely stirred hopeful expectations for the band. Surely this would be the record that changed everything.

Using songs that had reportedly been written throughout Good Rats’ fairly lengthy career, Birth Comes to Us All was a loose concept album. According to press materials the tracks on the album are “all dealing with different phases of the human life cycle.” Instead of prog rock abstraction, the material on the album seems to be highly personal. Album opening ballad “You’re Still Doing It” is based it on lead singer Peppi Marchellos’s own marriage, which at the time was seventeen years strong and resulted in four children. One of those offspring, ten-year-old Gene, lends vocals to “Gino,” which otherwise sounds a little like Rod Stewart fronting Thin Lizzy, with some touches of prog rock’s sense of theatricality thrown in.

The greasy guitar opening to “School Days” leads to a litany of reflections on the progression through high school, all tinged with cynicism (“Sophomore year, you make your drug connections/ Junior year, you worry ’bout your ugly pimples showing”). “City Liners” has a funky, flinty vibe, and “Bed and a Bottle” is agreeably catchy. “Man on a Fish” bears a sonic resemblance to the roughly concurrent work of Billy Joel, as does “Spirit of the Times.” That should have been a boon to Good Rats (Joel notched six Top 40 hits across 1979 and 1980), but it might have actually done little more than dissuade the long-term fans who were expecting the rock to be a little harder.

Birth Comes to Us All was met with a familiar middling response, leading the band to splinter somewhat. Half the roster was replaced before the next studio album, 1981’s Great American Music. That record proved to be the last under the Good Rats name, until a revival was launched fifteen years later.



beat appen

878. The English Beat, Wha’ppen? (1981)

Wha’ppen? was the second full-length studio effort by the band known in their home country as merely the Beat. Affixed with a geographic modifier for stateside releases, the bustling band co-fronted by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger had an enormous U.K. hit with the previous year’s debut, I Just Can’t Stop It. Boasting three U.K. Top 10 singles, the album helped establish reggae and ska styles as a major force in British pop. When it came time to record Wha’ppen?, the band wanted to do more.

The English Beat deliberately broadened their sound on the album, drawing significantly on West African rhythms, which gave Wha’ppen? a far more easygoing feel that its predecessor. The jolting surprises were largely set aside, in favor of the easy groove of “Drowning” and the gentle flow of “Doors of Your Heart.” This was a band known for delivering wondrously exhausting catalysts for joyous dance floor energy, and now they were essentially urging fans to slow down and settle into the music, potentially discovering some of the politicized agitation in the lyrics. There are still bursts of zippy invention — the flamenco shadings of “Monkey Murders,” or the funky jolt to “I Am Your Flag” — but Wha’ppen? largely expects the listener to lean in rather than be grabbed forcefully by the hand.

Perhaps inevitably, the response cooled down, too. The album charted just as high as its predecessor, but the singles stalled outside of the Top 20. The English Beat would deliver just one more studio album, the much-loved Special Beat Service — before calling it quits.



wall planet

877. Wall of Voodoo, Happy Planet (1987)

Happy Planet, the fourth album from the Los Angeles band Wall of Voodoo, was likely intended to merge the two distinct eras of the band. It reunited the group with producer Richard Mazda, who’d presided over Call of the West, the album that included “Mexican Radio,” the band’s biggest hit. That record was released during the span that Stan Ridgway was the group’s lead singer. Ridgway departed the lineup after that album, and Andy Prieboy, singer with the San Francisco art pop group Eye Protection, was recruited for frontman duties. It was surely hoped that Mazda could recapture the charms of the earlier record with the new personnel.

In accordance with the general Wall of Voodoo approach, the bulk of Happy Planet is decidedly, defiantly odd. That’s clear from the opening track, a weirdo cover of the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again.” The requisite music video included Brian Wilson, acting an unsettling madhouse vision that unfortunately (and maybe purposefully) called to mind his well-documented struggled with mental health. If Wall of Voodoo were hoping to generate chart goodwill with the familiarity of the song, they simultaneously did everything they could to repel the more casual listener.

Happy Planet is at its strongest when the band’s strange instincts are applied to styles that are sturdy enough to stand tall amidst the clowning. The quasi rockabilly of “Back in the Laundromat” and the boozy country-western goof “Ain’t My Day” overcome the sense that the band is signaling their disinterest. And the jittery “Elvis Bought Dora a Cadillac” is a surprisingly effective story-song.

Whatever aspirations Happy Planet carried, they weren’t fulfilled. Following the largely indifferent response to the album, the band broke up in 1988.


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 — #884 to #881

del stand

884. Del Fuegos, Stand Up (1987)

Time was running out for the Del Fuegos. Signed by the Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash Records, the Boston band were fully expected to inspire the same fervor from a national audience as they generated in their hometown, where they were the standouts of a local scene which would soon evolve into one of the proving grounds for nineteen-nineties alternative rock. Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp were routinely placing singles in the Billboard Top 10 at the time (they had two apiece in 1987). There was plenty of room for straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll bands on commercial radio. Despite a hearty label push and the mixed blessing of a starring role in a Miller beer commercial, the Del Fuegos hadn’t really broken through with their first two albums. So there was a lot riding on the third effort, Stand Up.

Working with their regular producer, Mitchell Froom (who presided over one of 1987’s most inescapable songs, the Los Lobos cover of “La Bamba”), Del Fuegos cranked out a batch of barroom rockers burnished with a studio sheen. Stand Up is solidly crafted and achingly safe. It’s as if they were hedging their bets, figuring that if they got another soft response from record buyers, at least they had material that could serve as an audition for another beer ad.

On Stand Up, the Del Fuegos are at their best when they keep it relatively simple, as on the bluesy album opener “Wear It Like a Cape.” There’s a comfort there that’s missing on much of the rest of the album. “Long Slide (For an Out)” is so packed with layers and elements that it is reminiscent of the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie to You,” with Chess Records instead of Stax as the inspiration, and — more problematically —  without the mix of discipline and sly reinvention perfected by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox. “A Town Called Love” has a similar put-everything-out-there vibe, with similarly drab results. When the album falters most gravely, the result is the bad Tom Waits impression “He Had a Lot to Drink Today,” or the laughable flashes of hard rock posturing on “News from Nowhere”

Except for the most faithful (including, clearly, a decent number of college radio programmers), no one was particularly happy about Stand Up. Following its lackluster rollout, Slash Records dropped the Del Fuegos, and guitarist Warren Zanes and drummer Woody Giessman both exited the band. A reconfigured version of the group released one more album — Smoking in the Fields, on RCA Records — before calling it quits, at least until the eventual siren song of college rock reunion cash-ins unexpectedly arrived a couple decades later.




883. Easterhouse, Contenders (1986)

There were plenty of bands staking out strong political positions in the nineteen-eighties, enraged to action by the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the ongoing moral crime of apartheid in South Africa, and all the dismaying information shared by Amnesty International as that organization’s prominence rose like mercury on a sweltering summer day. Few groups, though, were as unabashed about laying out their shared manifesto quite like the English post-punk punchers Easterhouse. Within the opening paragraphs of a 1986 Spin magazine profile, the fact that every member of the band was a full-fledged member of the Revolutionary Communist Party was casually offered up as an interesting tidbit. This was miles away from a Teen Beat clip-and-save page revealing that Simon Le Bon’s favorite color is blue.

Contenders, the full-length debut from Easterhouse, puts their politics right at the forefront of their adrenalized sonic assault. The songs sometimes get a little didactic — realistically, how could they not? — but sterling musicianship prevails a laudable amount of the time. The material is catchy and sharp enough that the hooks have already sunk in before the geopolitical lessons elbow their way in. “Nineteen Sixty-Nine” may consider the Northern Ireland riots of the title year with a term paper efficiency, but the enveloping slink of the bands sound — a little Echo and the Bunnymen and a lot of Joy Division — softens the lesson.

The jabbing guitar line of “Whistling in the Dark” evokes political punk forefathers the Clash, and the low rumble thunder of “Cargo of Souls” feels like Easterhouse is just starting to find a way to carry their influences forward into something sharply new. With clamorous authority, “Get Back to Russia” emphasizes the importance of pushing forward with potentially unpopular positions, even in the face of derision (“They tell you in England/ We’re all entitled to a say/ But nothing too extreme/ That’s not the English way”). The title refers to the commonplace dismissive counter to the band’s shared politics, and the song emphasizes the importance in maintaining vigilance in the face of that phrase. When a country is in trouble, the song points out, that’s when you fight the hardest for it.


lucy undone

882. The Lucy Show, …Undone (1985)

Presumably, the writers at Billboard didn’t quite know what to make of a band like the Lucy Show at the time …Undone was released. Though hardly a publication that went long in their record reviews, Billboard‘s assessment of the Lucy Show’s first full-length was strikingly brief: “British quartet debuts with a well crafted but rather dour set of trim rock originals, given urgency by its sober lyrics and taut arrangements.” The same issue offered significantly more words and enthusiasm for the concurrently released Ray Parker Jr. album, which was said to be “Tough enough for the dance floor, but slick enough for CHR.”

The assessment by Billboard was accurate, yet woefully incomplete. The debut by the Lucy Show was perfectly suited to the still-emerging college radio sound. Opening track and lead single “Ephemeral (This is No Heaven)” is emblematic, bringing a dreamy quality to a catchy, chiming track. It’s exploratory, emotionally piquant, and conveys an intellectual assurance. It’s no wonder the record immediately connected with student programmers. As if emphasizing the perfect fit of …Undone“Resistance” has a tingly touch of R.E.M., and both “The White Space” and “Better on the Hard Side” echo the romantic anguish of the Cure.

“The Twister” delivers a dizzying morass of synthesized sounds, coupling the music to fairly oblique social commentary lyrics (“You can laugh/ Don’t you laugh too hard/ We’ll fill you up with confidence/ And pack you off to war”). It can seem as though the Lucy Show is actively trying to figure out who they are, trying on different guises. Rather than resulting in a muddle, the approach gives the album a different sort of vigor. It’s not unpredictable, exactly, since there’s definitely a moody, lush through line to the sound, but there is a sense of rippling nuance from track to track.

The album did well on college radio, but neither it nor its singles (including the peppy “Undone”) made much of an impression on the commercial charts. The Lucy Show likely believed they’d made a good start. The label disagreed. A&M Records dropped the band at the end of the year, leaving the Lucy Show to scramble to find a home for their follow-up album, eventually landing on the Australian independent label Big Time Records.




881. 10cc, Bloody Tourists (1978)

Bloody Tourists is officially the sixth studio album credited to 10cc. It’s more accurate to think of it as the sophomore effort of the group that reconvened after founding figures Kevin Godley and Lol Creme departed, in part because they’re grown frustrated with their bandmates’ comparatively conventional tastes. Godley and Creme wanted to craft operatic pop opuses. On the basis on the 10cc found on Bloody Tourists, the remaining band members were more invested in weirdo pastiches that sloppily poured the wine of diverse music styles into the foggy chalice of upstanding British rock. The album title evidently refers to the band as they traipse blithely, somewhat ironically around the musical globe.

The album’s biggest hit is also its most egregious act of cynical appropriation. “Dreadlock Holiday” adopts a generic reggae sound in recounting the travails of outsiders vacationing among the ruffians on a Caribbean isle (“I heard a dark voice beside of me/ And I looked round in a state of fright/ I saw four faces, one mad/ A brother from the gutter”). The eventual scoring of some high quality weed (“She said I’ve got it you want it/ My harvest is the best”) redeems the vacation in a different eye-rolling deployment of cliche. Although it fell shy of the Top 10 in the U.S., “Dreadlock Holiday” was a chart-topping hit in the U.K. and several other countries.

The musical wanderlust also burbles up in the music box preciousness of “Tokyo” (“Kimonos and geisha girls/ From grade one, down to three/ Oh Tokyo, oh Tokyo/ Oh Tokyo, I love you”) and the quasi-calypso oddity “From Rochdale to Ocho Rios.” Even when there’s a less obvious geographic tie, the tracks meander strange paths. “The Anonymous Alcoholic” opens with just a a touch of woozy country twang before evolving into a disco riff and then back again. Although “Reds in My Bed” doesn’t pilfer any tones from Moscow (if anything, it sounds a little like Squeeze), it takes its own unique side trip into topics of global concern  (“And while the Cold War exists/ I’ll stay warm with the commissar’s daughter”).

And sometimes the explorations are yet plainer. “For You and I” is a clear descendent of 10cc’s major hit “The Things We Do for Love,” which means it’s just a softer version of Steely Dan’s icy, elegant pop. Since the band bops around, they occasionally alight on material that’s slightly more interesting. “Take These Chains” isn’t fantastic, but it could pass for a lesser Dave Edmunds offering. For a band wearing out their passport, that’s a better destination than most.

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