College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #576 to #573

neil re

576. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Re·ac·tor (1981)

Outside circumstances mandated a new approach for Neil Young when he recorded the album Re·ac·tor. His infant son Ben, his first child with his second wife, had recently been diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy, and the family was devoted almost full-time to working through a program to aid the boy’s development. Young, who’d previously kept nocturnal hours more typical of rock stars, limited himself to recording sessions in the afternoon, usually spending no more than four hours in the booth before getting back to Ben.

Understandably, the material on Re·ac·tor often feels like an early pass that was settled on rather than explored, an impression largely backed up by the reminiscences of those involved. The goofy “T-Bone” is representative. A last-minute, studio-concocted addition, the tracks is over nine minutes of aimless garage rock jamming as Young repeats “Got mashed potatoes” and “Ain’t got no T-Bone,” at last partially as a tribute to the restaurant where he met his wife Pegi. It’s a creative starting point presented as a finished product.

For other artists, this sort of loose approach can work, resulting in an endearingly freewheeling album. But playful is an overly incongruous vibe for Young. His gentle gags come across as grouchy old man complaints (and he was still in his thirties at this point). “Motor City” is a cranky rant set to music (“Another thing that’s bugging me/ Is this commercial on TV/ Says that Detroit can’t make good cars any more”), like Andy Rooney with an amplifier. And “Opera Star” is just bizarre, as if it were accidentally released with placeholder lyrics (“You were born to rock/ You’ll never be an opera star”). Young and his co-producers layer the songs with all sort of fussy elements —  sounds of simulated gunfire on “Shots,” a chugga-chugga beat on train song “Southern Pacific” — that only detract from the music’s impact.

Re·ac·tor didn’t fare well on the charts, helping to sour Young’s relationship with his longtime label, Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise Records. Young also opted not to tour in support of the records and similarly declined most interviews and other promotional efforts. Tending to the added challenges faced by his son was good cause for Young’s retreat from the machinery of the music business, but the label bosses were kept in the dark about Ben’s condition. To them, Young was just being pointlessly difficult (a conclusion which, to be fair to the executives, was made with the corroborating evidence of Young’s previous professional mood swings). After Re·ac·tor, Young and Reprise parted ways, and the performer jumped to Geffen Records, where he spent a good chunk of the nineteen-eighties in a state of constant reinvention.


joe beat

575. The Joe Jackson Band, Beat Crazy (1980)

Beat Crazy, the third album from Joe Jackson, includes an anguished explanation on its inner sleeve: “This album represents a desperate attempt to make some sense of Rock and Roll. Deep in our hearts, we knew it was doomed to failure. The question remains: Why did we try?”

Officially billed as a release by the Joe Jackson Band, Beat Crazy opens with a title cut that hands lead vocal duties to bassist Graham Maby, as if trying to assert a group effort ethos. Part Peter Gunn theme song and part rocksteady, the track is a sleek inversion of the jolting pop sound of Jackson’s first two records. It sets the standard for the rest of the album being simultaneously adventurous and tightly controlled. Sometimes coming unmoored is just the first step to sailing the high seas.

One of the key ways Jackson elevates the material is through the comic specificity of his lyrical observation, as with his griping about a partner whose too busy to spend time with him on “One to One” (“You’re going somewhere everyday/ Vegetarians Against the Klan/ Every Woman Against Every Man”) or the splendid mood-setting on the jittery “Evil Eye” (“I got the candles burning low/ I got the Cramps on the stereo”). Jackson’s pointedness is arguably at its best on the pointed album closer “Fit,” a snarled rallying cry for outcasts that’s admirably ahead of its time (“Don’t laugh, but there are people in this world/ Born as boys and fighting to be girls/ People standing in their way/ Some are straight and some are gay”). Not everything holds up — “Battleground” is now unbearable in its casual and repeated use of a word now wisely unuttered outside of rap songs — but the clarity of Jackson’s perspective gives Beat Crazy a spine.

Officially positioning Beat Crazy as an outing for a band rather than a solo project is a nice act of largesse, but it doesn’t properly reflect the authorship. Jackson wrote and arranged all the songs, and he also served as the sole producer for the first time. And not long after the album’s release, the Joe Jackson Band guises was dropped altogether. Guitarist Gary Sandford and drummer David Houghton, who’d been on all three of Jackson’s album to that point, were out of the group, and Jackson was off to explore other creative angles, not always successfully.


colour virgins

574. The Colour Field, Virgins and Philistines (1985)

Terry Hall was on his third band of major prominence upon the release of Virgins and Philistines, the debut album by the Colour Field (who would eventually excise the space from their name in favor of a tidy compound word). He fronted the Specials and then released two albums with the offshoot band Fun Boy Three. After the latter group split up, Hall decided to strike out in a different direction, recruiting bassist Karl Shale and guitarist and keyboardist Toby Lyons from the obscure ska band the Swinging Cats. Although the members of the trio shared a history with bouncy, reggae-influenced beats, the Colour Field skewed in the direction of glossy, precise pop, in the vein of Aztec Camera and the Housemartins.

Clean and pretty, the Colour Field sound was somewhat out of step with U.S. tastes at the time, so Chrysalis Records rejiggered the track listing of Virgins and Philistines, putting a faithful, airy cover of the ? and the Mysterians hit “I Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” right up front. The flip of the record included a cover “Hammond Song,” a more obscure song that was originally recorded by the Roches, providing a couple tested tunes to go with the Colour Field originals.

Distant as it may be from U.S. commercial radio preferences, then and now, the material on Virgins and Philistines is very strong. The quietly epic “Pushing Up the Daisies” and the sly, elegant “Yours Sincerely” are gliding beauties, and the polished pop song “Thinking of You” was justly a solid hit in the U.K. Upping the studio sheen yet further, “Castles in the Air” is a precursor to the Divine Comedy and other acts that would make masterful chamber pop in the decade to come. “Cruel Circus” plies the sweet pop to an angry statement in favor of animal rights that give Morrissey’s vegan swoons the taste of flat soda (“Fur coats on ugly people/ Expensively dressed up to kill/ In a sport that’s legal/ Within the minds of the mentally ill”).

In keeping with Hall’s history, the Colour Field didn’t last long. There was only one more full-length album — Deception, released in 1987 — before the group was disbanded, and Hall went onto a journeyman career through U.K. music.


modern stop

573. Modern English, Stop Start (1986)

Getting a tantalizing taste of commercial success, Modern English were eager to make a hit. The 1982 single “I Melt with You” now stands as one of the quintessential songs of the nineteen-eighties, but it was only a modest success at the time of its release, peaking at #78 on the Billboard chart (nestled between U2’s “New Year’s Day” at #77 and Ultravox’s “Reap the Wild Wind,” at #79, giving that sliver of the Hot 100 a very college radio feel). Modern English weren’t able to leverage the still-growing appreciation of the single into attention for the follow-up releases, so they decided to make an all-in attempt at appealing to the masses with the album Stop Start, abandoning the artier inclinations of their original label 4AD to give themselves over fully to Warner Bros. subsidiary Sire Records.

Every groove of Stop Start holds evidence of a band trying way too hard. “The Border” is horrid in its ornate overproduction and the single “Ink and Paper,” co-written by former Rubinoos guitarist Tommy Dunbar, is painfully generic. As Modern English flails around in search of a crowd-pleaser, they sound like any number of bands that sold their souls to the devils of rapidly advancing studio technology. “I Don’t Know the Answer” is like Glass Tiger hopped up on amphetamines, and “Love Forever” echos Simple Minds as they succumbed to the allure of too much studio time in their desperate, futile attempt to prove they didn’t need a soundtrack hand-me-down to top the chart. The shiny flopsweat gleams ever brighter until the album closing “Start Stop Stop Start” is essentially nothing but studio effects.

Stop Start wasn’t a hit, and Sire effectively gave up on the album after the first single flopped. The frustration of it all broke Modern English. They disbanded shortly after the album’s release, though that professional choice also didn’t take. The group reformed a couple years later, as hungry for a hit as ever, releasing the comeback album Pillow Lips. That album’s first single? A rerecorded version of “I Melt with You.”


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 — #580 to #577

untouchables wild

580. The Untouchables, Wild Child (1985)

Well before the advent of Kickstarter campaigns, the Los Angeles band the Untouchables figured out a way to draw an advance from the enthusiasm from their fans. When the group was playing shows to ever more enthusiastic crowds but still couldn’t generate any interest from record labels, they mounted a fundraising campaign which netted around fifteen thousand dollars. That small windfall was put toward the recording of their debut EP, Live and Let Dance, and the band’s delirious hybrid of ska, soul, and pop eventually found its way to David Robinson, the former Island Records president who had just taken over Stiff Records. The Untouchables became one of the few acts signed to the U.K. cult hero label, and their debut full-length, Wild Child, arrived shortly thereafter.

Opening with a title song that carries the classic vibe of old Stax sizzlers, Wild Child is a vibrant piece of work. The Untouchables definitely flash some of the reggae and ska influence that probably contributed significantly to the interest of U.K. music fans, then at the tail end of the two-tone phase. “Mandingo” is textbook ska, and “What’s Gone Wrong” lilts along with a reggae ballad cool. “(I Spy for the) FBI” demonstrates the way the band could lean into the particulars of the style while simultaneously expanding their possibilities. And an elements such as the bluesy guitar swirling around on “Piece of Your Love” further makes the assertion that they had little interest in being pigeonholed.

The impressive flashes of range on Wild Child are occasionally countered by a running-before-mastering-walking stumble, as with “Lovers Again,” which crams the band into a dance music framework, not entirely comfortably. Mostly, the album is energizing, casually indulging in the sort of blithe rule-breaking that typified the adventure and rebellion of college radio.



579. Cocteau Twins, The Pink Opaque (1985)

For their first few releases, the Scottish band Cocteau Twins lacked distribution in the U.S. So as their distinctive swirling dream pop earned a modest yet impressive following in the U.K., with strong record sales and singles the routinely topped the indie chart, North American listeners who wanted their music to swoon and ache were left digging through import bins and steeling themselves for the heftier price tags stuck onto the 4AD releases. They finally snagged a deal with Relativity Records, mandating a proper introduction to the U.S. audience.

Clustering together several tracks from the preceding years, The Pink Opaque is a fine primer on Cocteau Twins. The beautifully drifty “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” and the delicate dance of “Aikea-guinea” sound ethereal and grounded all at once. They’re light and precise without becoming overly precious. “Lorelei” is ravishingly complex, snarling together elegant restraint and a full-hearted eddy of lush sounds in a way that sounds like a complete reinvention of what music can do. The strictures of the modern pop song are tossed asunder, and yet the track is catchy and stirring, somehow feeling familiar in its oddity. It’s like there’s sorcery at play.

As was the case with other compilations of this ilk, a bit of otherwise unavailable material is also sprinkled in. The album’s sole entirely new track, “Millimillenary,” maintains the trademark sound, rendering in a tough, knotty manner. And “Wax and Wane” is given the polish of a remix, though the spruce up doesn’t carry it that far away from the original.

As a platform for Cocteau Twins’ introduction to the U.S., The Pink Opaque couldn’t have been better assembled. And, in a bit of fortuitous timing, the band’s strongest overall albums were just ahead. Music fans who discovered them with the compilation would soon be rewarded nicely.


big atomizer

578. Big Black, Atomizer (1986)

Reviewing Atomizer for Spin magazine, Byron Coley highlighted an unexpected accomplishment for an album steeped in a punk rock ethos: “You’ll notice no drummer listed, and I herewith beg to inform you that Big Black is the only band in the known world that has ever made a Roland drum machine sound good.”

The relatively new invention the drum machine was mostly used by groups making dance music, taking advantage of the device’s ultra-precise rhythms to create tracks meant to keep the dance floor full. Steve Albini and his collaborators in Big Black figured out the relentlessness of the technology was also a fine match for punk rock. The thrillingly assaultive “Jordan, Minnesota” establishes the brilliance of the idea, with the drum machine sounding like a t-shirt cannon refashioned into a Tommy gun. Introducing an element that skews away from the sweat-and-blood authenticity demanded by punk fans courts cries of heresy, but Big Black quickly make a compelling case for their deviation.

There are sparks of invention present all across Atomizer, whether on the formidably horrific “Fists of Love” or powerhouse “Stinking Drunk,” which often sounds like metal contorting. “Kerosene” is an intimidating snarl, answering the small town romanticization making millions for John Mellencamp with a counterargument of misery (“I was born in this town/ Live here my whole life/ Probably come to die in this town/ Live here my whole life”) eventually capped by fantasies of blazing destruction (“There’s Kerosene around, find something to do/ Kerosene around, find something to do/ Kerosene around, she’s something to do/ Kerosene around, set me on fire”). The album closes with the splendid noise of live track “Cables,” as if Big Black wants to make it clear that their use of supplementary technology doesn’t limit them to studio performances. They can rattle a club as well as any of their peers.

Atomizer was the full-length debut of Big Black. Befitting a band built on defiance, there wasn’t much to follow. The following year brought their sophomore full-length, Songs About Fucking. That provocatively titled album was also the band’s last.



577. Greg Kihn Band, Kihntinued (1982)

Greg Kihn tried a few different musical explorations on Kihntinued, the fourth album billed to the Greg Kihn Band and his seventh full-length studio effort overall. He brought a mild Caribbean feel to “Tell me Lies” and “Sound System.” He kicked up the volume on “Seeing is Believing,” leading to some of the least convincing hard rock posturing ever pressed onto record. But a Greg Kihn record is a Greg Kihn record is a Greg Kihn record. In most respects, Kihntinued is interchangeable with the other albums that bear Kihn’s name, demonstrating a sturdy sense of pop-rock craft and a redundancy of ideas that suggests a bunch of folks who are eager to ring the quitting bell early every day.

When Kihn and his cohorts landed on a slick hook or a nifty turn of phrase, they could cook up a song that broke down the defenses of the most committed music elitist. The rest of the time, the material settled into a region of nearly unbearable blandness. Kihntinued sits squarely in the rest of the time. Putting a squirrelly saxophone part into “Every Love Song” isn’t the same as adding personality to a song. And if “Everyday/Saturday” is exactly as inane as modern pop songs about club life, that doesn’t make it prescient. Kihntinued is early-eighties pop-rock at its most generic.


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 — #584 to #581

cure walk

584. The Cure, The Walk (1983)

The Cure were on the verge of collapse in 1983, and that’s naturally when they enjoyed their most commercially successful year to that point. Bassist Simon Gallup left the band in late 1982, prompting lead singer Robert Smith to openly speculate that the Cure was over and done. Instead, Fiction label head Chris Parry convinced Smith to keep going. Lol Tolhurst moved from keyboards to drums and the duo version of the Cure started recording songs. The first single to emerge from that era, “Let’s Go to Bed,” became one of the most beloved entries in the Cure’s catalog, but it was on a modest success at the time. Instead, it was the next single, “The Walk,” that brought the Cure their first significant chart success. It peaked just outside the U.K. Top 10.

In the U.S., Sire Records caught in the constant tussle to figure out how to release the Cure’s popular singles in a record store market that significantly favored albums. The solution was to package the three tracks apiece from the U.K. singles “Let’s Go to Bed” and “The Walk” into a sort of mini-album, with the latter song provided the release’s official title. By the end of 1983, all of these tracks would got swept back up again and plopped on the Japanese Whispers compilation, but The Walk offered the first chance for college radio programmers to revel in the quietly riveting “The Upstairs Room” and synth-bop winner “The Dream.”

Sudden flares of commercial promise might cause other bands to fortify their crumbling foundations. Instead, Smith grew grouchy about the expectations that the band would continue jauntily down a pop music pathway, so he veered away from material likely to please the newfound fan base. The band’s next album was the flawed, experimental The Top, which was also a Smith solo outing in every aspect but the name. Major commercial success would come, but Smith was determined to fight the embrace as along as he could.


what is this-001

583. What Is This, What Is This (1985)

Although the band What Is This technically predated the Red Hot Chili Peppers, they also toiled in the shadow of the future generator of funk-inflected alternative rock hits. Guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons were one-half of the founding lineup of What Is This, and they were actively working the Los Angeles music scene with the band. One night, more or less on a lark, Slovak and Irons took the stage with old pals Anthony Kiedis and Flea, jamming under the name Tony Flow and the Majestic Masters of Mayhem. When their intended one-off group was an unexpected hit, they changed their name to Red Hot Chili Peppers and started taking on club gigs. What Is This and Red Hot Chili Peppers each inked major labels deals at about the same time.

Initially, Slovak and Irons oped for What Is This over the Red Hot Chili Peppers, considering the latter more of a side gig. When time came to record the self-titled full-length debut of What Is This, Slovak had second thoughts and asked to get back into the Red Hot Chili Peppers, leaving What Is This as a trio without the distinctive guitar player who helped them get noticed in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, What Is This sounds like a wan approximation of the Southern California sounds of the time. “Chasing Your Ghost” is like Lukewarm Chili Peppers, and “Stuck” is like Oingo Boingo without the touch of contained mania. Their cover of the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around” has a mid-eighties soulless sheen, which is probably attributable to the influence of producer Todd Rundgren. What is This arguably does best when any and all pretensions are stripped away, as with the straightforward rock ‘n’ roll of “Dreams of Heaven” and “Breathing.”

What Is This released only one full-length studio album, and Irons soon followed Slovak back to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That situation didn’t last long either, though for far more tragic reasons. In 1988, Slovak died of a heroin overdose, and Irons, distraught over the loss of his friend, decided he couldn’t play in the band any longer. Though Irons kept making music, including a stint as Pearl Jam’s drummer, he wouldn’t play with the Red Hot Chili Peppers again until the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


tubes outside

582. The Tubes, Outside/Inside (1983)

If resolute musical oddballs the Tubes were going to have a Top 10 hit, it only makes sense that they’d put a few dents in the mold and succeed with a song inspired by a visit to a red light district peep show. Fee Waybill, frontman for the Tubes, readily acknowledged that the lyrics of “She’s a Beauty” were inspired by his own experience in a San Francisco establishment that made the promise of an encounter with a pretty girl for merely one dollar. Released as a single from Outside/Inside, the sixth studio album from the Tubes, the song became a quick MTV staple and went remarkably high on the Billboard charts. They were a long way from “White Punks on Dope.”

That distance from the band’s raucous beginnings didn’t sit well with everyone on the roster. For the second straight album, the Tubes worked with producer David Foster, who was in between performing the same duties on Chicago 16 and Chicago 17. It was a strange union, leading to the discombobulating sensation of wondering whether the slick, happily dumb hard rock of “Out of the Business” (“I always dreamed of walking out/ Punch that guy right in the mouth/ But I never had the guts/ Now I know I got the stuff”) was delivered with impish mockery or addled sincerity. Foster’s instinct for making audience-friendly hits clearly ran counter to the art rock, deconstructionist instincts of several band members.

As might be expected under the circumstances, Outside/Inside is all over the place. The album has a deadpan cover of the Major Lance Top 10 hit “The Monkey Time” (featuring lead vocals by Martha Davis, lead singer of the Motels, or Michele Gray, who regularly performed with the Tubes as a dance, on different pressings of the album) and the loopy provocation of “Wild Women of Wongo,” which was clearly stocked away in the idea vault raided by Was (Not Was) when they developed their funk storytelling schtick. “Tip of My Tongue” is co-written by Maurice White, of Earth, Wind & Fire, and it sounds like a cutesy version of his band’s wild funk workouts. And then there are tracks “Drums” and “Theme Park,” thin ideas padded out slightly until they were seemingly abandoned as studio boredom mounted.

There was no denying the success of Outside/Inside, but the mounting creative tensions in the band still mandated a shift. For their next album, the band recruited Todd Rundgren to produce, likely figuring he could bridge the distance between slicked-up pop and confrontational weirdness. If intended as a fix, it didn’t work. Except for eventual reunion releases, the next album from the Tubes would be the last.


cars panorama

581. The Cars, Panorama (1980)

Driven by the crack songwriting of frontman Ric Ocasek, the Cars made a strong impression from the very beginning, and then discovered firsthand the fickleness of the music press and, to a degree, rock fandom. Only three albums deep into their career, the band already needed to mount an aggressive defense of their artistic choices.

“Well, it’s definitely not a rehash of the first two albums, nor is it just some reply to all those fucks who said the last album was nothing more than detached love affairs and hollow relationships,” guitarist Elliot Easton told Rolling Stone at the time. “The first time Ric played the new songs for us, I thought they sounded plain weird — like inside-out music.”

If the new songs were truly that weird in demo form, a lot of the strangeness was buffed away by the time they appeared on Panorama. The title cut is definitely on the edgier edge of new wave, and both bounding “Getting Through” and shimmery “Running to You” suggest the Cars heading down a couple previously unexplored caverns in the mountain of their sound. But the material on the band’s third album is thoroughly recognizable as an extension of what came before. Making synths more prevalent — or, in the case of “Down Boys,” layering in some flying saucer tones — doesn’t automatically made plain and pointed pop rock all that difficult to parse.

On “Touch and Go,” the Cars do manage to get to the “You Got Lucky” synth line two years ahead of Tom Petty, so good on them.


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

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #588 to #585

nina fearless

588. Nina Hagen, Fearless (1983)

Released in her homeland as Angstlos, the fourth album by German wildling Nina Hagen delivered a notable shift in sonic style. A compatriot of the Sex Pistols, Hagen had previously leaned into offbeat art rock, taking the abrasion of the punk ethos and applying it to genre-bending so extreme that the very idea of categorization started to seem quaint. Titled Fearless the English-speaking audience, Hagen’s album maintained the deliciously nutso vibe while embracing a more straightforward dance music sound. “Honey, after the show, when we are ready to go/ We are going disco, but before we hit East 7th Street/ We are going to another disco/ Disco after disco and shaking our hair to the disco rap,” Hagen sings on the brightly bizarre “New York New York.”

Of course, the addition of Hagen’s sensibility prevents any track from sounding too much like the other records spun in the club. “Flying Saucers” carries the hallmarks of producer Giorgio Moroder, but the inventively trilled syllables of Hagen are a larger part of what makes the cut memorable. “I Love Paul” puts the Hare Krishna mantra to a disco beat, and “T.V. Snooze” gets warped, Devo-esque pop out of the sensation of falling asleep to discordant television broadcasts. Arguably the song that now sounds most conventional is “What It Is,” and that’s only because it was recorded in collaboration with Red Hot Chili Peppers (one year before their debut album was released). Through the echo of retrospection, “What It Is” has hints of the alternative music that would elbow its way into the mainstream around ten years later.


squeeze sweets

587. Squeeze, Sweets from a Stranger (1982)

Several albums deep into their career, Squeeze found themselves with some broader commercial success to build on. Although they’d regularly performed solidly on the charts at home in the U.K., it wasn’t until the 1981 album East Side Story that Squeeze made a noticeable impact in the U.S., a situation mostly attributable to the single “Tempted.” When it came time to record the follow-up album, though, the band’s ability to capitalize of the newfound familiarity was somewhat compromised by the departure of keyboardist Paul Carrack, whose took lead vocal duties on the hit song. But the foundation of Squeeze was clearly songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook. The band survived personnel shifts before.

Recording on Sweets for a Stranger, Squeeze’s fifth studio album, didn’t get off to an auspicious start, though. There was already a high amount of stress because of ongoing legal wrangling over a bad contract that permanently compromised Difford and Tilbrook’s ownership of their own songs, and the band was enduring an ill-advised stretch when they turned management duties over to their regular sound engineer, Paul Lilly, leading to a procession of bad financial investments. Then the band sacked producer Gus Dudgeon early in the process, replacing him with Phil McDonald, who had recording engineer for the Beatles on his resume. “He was calm to work with but never really lit any fires,” Difford later wrote in recalling McDonald’s efforts on the album.

Difford’s assessment of a lax working environment is reflected by the album. The songs slot into the usual Squeeze framework — clever melodies, lyrics ruminating on troubled-water relationships and other dilemmas of malcontented middle class existence — but are mostly delivered with a drab disinterest, as if the only goal was good enough. “Out of Touch” puts a mild disco edge to its tale of a drifting romance and “Stranger Than a Stranger on the Shore,” a tip of the hat to Acker Bilk’s 1962 chart-topping hit, has a racing tempo and a hollow feel. And Squeeze often covers the same thematic ground on the album, as when the slow jazz lament of “When the Hangover Strikes” is later countered by “I’ve Returned,” by jauntier tale of day-after regret.

The album has some moments when the old inspiration flickers alive. “The Very First Dance” is a tricky, layered confection, for instance. The true highlight is “Black Coffee in Bed,” a grinding, soaring pop song that is the sole wholly worthy successor to the sterling East Side Story material.

Sweets from a Stranger must have been dissatisfying to the members of Squeeze, too. After the tour in support of the album, Squeeze officially disbanded. The retirement of the band name was brief, though. The band’s first reunion album, Cosi Fan Tutti Frutti, arrived three years later.


patti wave

586. Patti Smith Group, Wave (1979)

Patti Smith intended Wave to be her final statement as a musician. Already an icon on the basis of her first three albums and a ferocious stage presence, Smith was growing weary of the scene she helped define. Most importantly, she was in love. Smith met Fred “Sonic” Smith, the former guitarist for the MC5, and the two bonded over poetry and other forms of artistic expression well-removed from the bruised knuckle tussling of rock ‘n’ roll. The Patti Smith Group remained in the dark about their frontwoman’s plans, but she planned for the tour following the album’s release to be her last.

Perhaps stemming from Smith’s planned career mortality, Wave is a scattered affair, coming across like a collection of spare parts, especially when compared against the cohesion of earlier powerhouses Horses and Easter. What could be slipshod from another artist is energizing coming from Smith, as if Wave offers an unguided tour through the firecracker cacophony of her wildly creative mind. The songs fairly tremble with possibility, and every gap between cuts is freighted with mystery. Once the music starts up again, it can go absolutely anywhere, it seems.

Where the music starts on Wave is “Frederick,” Smith’s tribute to the man who would soon be her husband. The song is also a fairly transparent attempt to duplicate “Because the Night,” the Bruce Springsteen–penned song that became her only Top 40 hit one year earlier. “Dancing Barefoot” is a stronger example of Smith taking the cloth of modern pop music and scissoring and stitching it into something new and distinctly of her making.

The freewheeling approach combines with an apparent instinct to hit on every idea she want to get on record before hanging up her microphone, causing the album to range from a tough-minded cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be (A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star)” to the punk dirge “Broken Flag” to the title cut, which is a strange performance piece evidently dedicated to the 33-day papacy of Pope John Paul I (“And the way your the way your cloth looks/ I like I like to see the edges/ The bottom of it/ Get all wet when you’re walking near the water there”). Smith approaches self-parody on the booming “Citizen Ship,” but she’s remarkable steady for most of the album, further cementing her status as one of the most riveting artists of her generation.

The retreat from the music business went largely as planned. She married Fred Smith in 1980, and they had two children together, living a very domesticated life outside of Detroit. Nearly a decade would pass before she put out her next album (Dream of Life, released in 1988), and she wouldn’t return to the job in earnest until the following decade, after the death of her husband made getting back to work into a way to soothe the pain and keep moving forward with her life.


phil jacket

585. Phil Collins, No Jacket Required (1985)

No Jacket Required, the third solo album from Phil Collins was released in February 1985, at around the time he was informed that he wouldn’t be performing his nominated song “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” at the Academy Awards. One month later, as Collins sat in the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, surely wincing through Ann Reinking’s deeply misguided rendition of his song, No Jacket Required was about to take the top position on the Billboard album chart, starting a four week run there. It would make two more trips to the top of that tally before the year was out, on its way to selling more than twelve million copies in the U.S. and over twenty-five million worldwide.

Probably because it’s not as well-regarded as other blockbuster albums of the era, it’s easy to dismiss No Jacket Required. At the time, though, the album was undeniable. It yielded four Top 10 singles, including two that claimed the top spot: the horn-swarmed, nonsense proclamation of infatuation “Sussudio” and the melancholy ballad “One More Night.” The simple, yearning “Take Me Home” and punchy “Don’t Lose My Number” were also ubiquitous on radio and MTV. As with many of the hits cranked out by the Genesis drummer and lead singer, the songs are merely serviceable and yet undeniably marked by a high level of craft and a canny pop showmanship.

The singles were well-chosen. Going deeper into the album reveals the limits of Collins’s creativity.  “Long Long Way to Go” sounds like Collins taking a stab at the airy, intricate art rock of his old bandmate Peter Gabriel, but without the cerebral intensity needed to sell it. And “Who Said I Would” suggests Collins looked at a gap in the record and said, “Let’s do ‘Sussudio’ again, but kinda different. A little funkier, maybe?” None of the material is dreadful, but some of the songs are highly forgettable. In pop music, that might be an equivalent sin.

At the end of the year, Collins was again atop the U.S. singles chart. “Separate Lives,” a duet with Marilyn Martin, was taken from the soundtrack to the film White Nights. It was nominated in the Best Original Song category at the Academy Awards. Again, Collins didn’t perform. Instead, Stephen Bishop, the nominated songwriter, shared the stage with Martin.


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 — #592 to #589

that petrol emotion

592. That Petrol Emotion, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues (1988)

That Petrol Emotion recorded their third album knowing that a major change was looming. At the outset of their time in the studio, guitarist and co-founder John O’Neill announced his intention to leave the band. A former member of the Undertones and a sharp songwriter, O’Neill’s fingerprints were all over That Petrol Emotion’s music, and his presence was a major factor in the band receiving attention in the first place. In addition to the uncertainty about where the band could go in the future, everyone had to deal with the awkwardness of working with someone who’d already declared his intention to walk away, like waiting out an apartment lease with an ex-boyfriend whose already started dating around.

Unsurprisingly, the music press at the time largely declared the resulting album, End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues, to be a confused affair. Some deep knowledge of the band’s troubled waters backstory might have held some sway on opinion, because the album is a perfectly fine assemblage of chattering pop-rock, bearing influences from the British and Irish scenes of the time, with a dash of the more bubbly U.S. acts romping across college radio playlists. And several tracks — incuding “Sooner or Later” and “Here It Is… Take It!” — sit nearly on the leading edge of the emerging Madchester sound that would soon make flaring stars out of the likes of the Farm and the Charlatans. “Tension” has nifty bullfrog synths to open the song, followed by a jabbing beat, and “Goggle Box” is frothing pop lunacy.

For many, the most notable song on the album was one of O’Neill’s parting shots. “Cellophane” musically employed an Irish folk lilt and lyrically addressed the conflicts in Northern Ireland (“In a world and in its sounds/ In any street in any town I go/ There’s a wreckage of desire/ Of feelings never hired or sold”). It was a topic O’Neill had largely avoided previously, disappointing those who sought fiery points of view from their Irish rock. It was as though his expectation that he’d no longer be a part of That Petrol Emotion mandated the creation of the one song that had previously been missing.


metro music

591. Martha and the Muffins, Metro Music (1980)

Placeholder band names can stick around. After Ontario College of Art classmates David Millar and Mark Gane assembled a band, they looked to their lead singer, Martha Johnson, and opted for the name Martha and the Muffins, believing it to be temporary. It wasn’t. Within a couple years, Millar left the band and a second Martha was added to lineup (Martha Ladly, who played a few different instruments and contributed vocals). The group was six members strong when they recorded their debut full-length, Metro Music.

The album’s lead single, “Echo Beach,” positions Martha and the Muffins as prime practitioners of new wave music. As the title suggests the track is tinged with a touch of surf rock, and there’s even a forecast of R.E.M.’s probing intricacy in the music. Johnson comes across as a cousin of Debbie Harry, intoning her lines with a sense of chilly enticement. Echo Beach” has the undeniable hit shimmer, at least for those territories with a more adventurous pop bent. (The single went Top 10 in the U.K. and didn’t even touch the Hot 100 in the U.S.). It’s even a fine representation of new wave because of the way all sorts of blissful pop invention is stuffed into one song, making it hard for the rest of the album to live up to the pinnacle of the opening track.

If the rest of Metro Music is inevitably a bit of a let down, the drop isn’t all that steep. The restless “Hide and Seek” and the jaunty “Monotone” are winners, and “Revenge (Against the World),”  is appropriately pointed (“I’m thinking of the times that I’ve looked around/ Searching for the great ideal/ But the human race wears an ugly face/ And cosmetics wash off in the rain”) as saxophonist Andy Haas sends notes zipping around liken drunken bumblebees. Sometimes the album suffers from some era-specific wandering around different genres, as on “Sinking Land,” which is like a ponderous prog rock epic condenses to new wave size. Mostly, though, Metro Music is a zingy charmer.


general hand

590. General Public, Hand to Mouth (1986)

To a degree, General Public got tripped up by their own success. Emerging from the dissolution of the Beat (or the English Beat, as they were commonly known in the U.S.) the group co-lead by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger achieved commercial success beyond their expectations with their debut album, All the Rage, released in 1984. In particular, the single “Tenderness” became a major hit with an era-defining presence that exceeded its actual chart peaks. The tour to support All the Rage just kept going and going. And then the process of recording a follow-up album was slowed when both of the band’s principal members became fathers. General Public’s sophomore album, Hand to Mouth, didn’t exactly have a Chinese Democracy–style gestation period, but the once-hot iron was starting to cool.

As if anticipating the need to ingratiated themselves, the album opens with the vibrant, showbiz-y dervish “Come Again!” It’s a mere wisp of a song, but it also moves with a chipper friendliness that’s difficult to resist. “Cry on Your own Shoulder” is similarly smooth, while also serving as prime example of the limits of thin songwriting paired with eager-to-please production. At a certain point, the glittery charm can’t disguise limitations. There’s also a common mismatch between music and lyrics, which could create a welcome friction. Instead, the result is usually a muddled, purposeless song. “Murder” joins sickly sweet pop with lyrics about toxic relationships (“No time for cheap excuses like/ ‘He can’t help it,’ ‘She can’t help it’/ Jump out of the bed and straight into the fire/ How are you meant to stand it”) and the effect is the wrong kind of dizzying. “Forward as One” fares better by putting sharp political lyrics (“Forward as one/Not marching as to war’) to a sweet, easy beat.

General Public seem too disengaged to pull off the more complicated maneuvers of their songs. As a result, Hand to Mouth is best on a track such as the relatively simple “Love Without the Fun,” which recalls the retro swing of Nick Lowe. The impression is that the band is trying to have a good time and nothing much more, and that spirit extends to the listener. But that’s clearly not where General Public was at. Shortly after the album was released, the band called it quits.


rats grass

589. The Boomtown Rats, In the Long Grass (1984)

“The Irish answer is ‘I’ve been lying in the long grass,’ which means I’ve been around, but I may not have been visible,” explained the Boomtown Rats’ frontman, Bob Geldof, to Spin magazine at the time his band’s sixth studio album was released.

The title In the Long Grass was an open acknowledgment of the dire state of the Boomtown Rats’ place in the culture, and there was undoubtedly a touch of exasperation to the sentiment. The album was initially rejected by their U.K. label, and the release was held up for months in the U.S. Only after Geldof’s profile was raised considerably by his efforts spearheading the Band Aid charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” did the Columbia Records consent to releasing In the Long Grass, and then only with a revised track list and a mandated re-recording of the single “Dave” to make it “Rain.”

If the jerking around suffered by the band seems especially rough, a listen to In the Long Grass can almost inspire one to take the side of the label executives. The songs are all over the place, from the strutting new wave of “Tonight” to the pushy “Hard Times,” which finds Geldof trying for David Bowie but coming closer to Oingo Boingo. “Up or Down” is somehow fevered, jittery, and listless all at the same time. “Drag Me Down” comes across as a misguided attempt to craft a hit and winds up sounding like some ungodly combination of Elvis Costello and Duran Duran.

Between the music biz frustration and Geldof’s burgeoning status as the activist saint of rock ‘n’ roll, the Boomtown Rats were basically doomed by the time In the Long Grass hit U.S. record shops. Though the band took the stage for Geldof’s Live Aid concert, there wasn’t much future left for them. The band broke up in 1986, and In the Long Grass was their final album.


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 — #596 to #593

red wagon

596. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Paint Your Wagon (1986)

By the time they buckled down to record their second full-length album, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry had already gone through enough upheaval to remake half their roster. Guitarists Chris Reed and David Wolfenden were the mainstays, joined by a whole new rhythm section in bassist Leon Phillips and drummer Chris Oldroyd. Though motivated more by the usual interpersonal disagreements, the change also suited the dual guitarists interest in keeping the music raw and unpolished.

“The more we play guitar, obviously we become better musicians,” Wolfenden explained at the time. “But as a reaction against that, we go out of our way to avoid sounding too competent. We always want to sound as though it’s the first time we ever picked up guitars in our lives.”

Paint Your Wagon doesn’t sound amateurish, but the blaring, buzzing mosaic of guitar sounds does imply players who are still joyfully discovering the raucous possibilities of their instruments. The buoyant “Mescal Dance,” the splendid churn of “Which Side,” and the gorgeous sonic sprawl of “Blitz” are invested with a thrilling, anxious energy. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry sounds as though they’re striving to reinvent the very possibility of what they can do as a band, blithely unaware of whatever expectations fans or music biz overlords might have. They show a tight mastery of pure post-punk menace on “Last Train,” and properly rattle the walls on the Cramps-like “Walking on Your Hands.” At all time, the album feels like it’s damn near ready to explode.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry also kept the tumult going in the operation of the band. Paint Your Wagon was their last for little indie label Red Rhino. They jumped to a subsidiary of major tastemaker label Beggars Banquet, and in the midst of the transition risked confusing the masses by briefly rechristening themselves the Lorries and released the goth-drama EP Crawling Mantra.


depeche people

595. Depeche Mode, People are People (1984)

The executives are Sire Records were perplexed about Depeche Mode’s ability to crack the U.S. market. The band from Essex enjoyed major success at home in the U.K. from the very beginning, pushing every single from their first three albums into the Top 40. Those same songs barely registered in the U.S., make meager progress on the Billboard dance chart and nowhere else. The 1983 album Construction Time Again never even made an appearance on the U.S. album chart. Sire needed a different approach.

Following a fairly common model for the time, the label cobbled together a batch of Depeche Mode songs that either hadn’t seen release in the U.S. or were likely to be unfamiliar to stateside listeners. The collection was titled People are People, undoubtedly inspired by the fact that the single of the same name had recently become the band’s biggest hit to date in the U.K. Surely this would help fans find the band.

The synth-driven pop Depeche Mode was making at the time was certainly aligned with the material being made by a lot of bands that were having success on the charts and especially on MTV. But Depeche Mode had an airy, sterile quality that maybe explained the difficulty in breaking through. People are People is filled with tracks that are oddly halfhearted. The extra blippy “Love, in Itself” feels firmly stalled in a single idea, and “Get the Balance Right” is similarly bland, offering an disinterest version of dreamy pop. “Work Hard” comes across a goofy Kraftwerk lite with remakrably inane lyrics (“You’ve got to work hard/ You’ve got to work hard/ If you want anything at all”).

Depeche Mode clearly had some skills, though. There are intriguing layers to “Leave in Silence” and the extended version of “Everything Counts (In Large Amounts)” that closes the album is expert in exploiting and sustaining a clever hook. And “People are People” is a dandy single. It also proved Sire Records was correct about which song to place a bet on. Although it took about a year after the release of People are People before it hit, the compilation’s title cut became Depeche Mode’s first Top 40 single in the U.S.


raygun jettison

594. Naked Raygun, Jettison (1988)

Naked Raygun formed in Chicago in the early nineteen-eighties, playing a style of tuneful punk rock that seemed to burble up all over the Upper Midwest. Jettison, the band’s third album, is a fierce and wondrous slab of inspired rock music, locking into a style and ably demonstrating all the small yet significant variations that can be generated within a basic guitar-and-drum rock assault. From the album’s opening track, the burning-fuel blast “Soldiers Requiem,” Naked Raygun deliver an object lesson in making tight, focused music.

The avalanche of sound on “The Mule” and quickening pace of the drums on “Hammer Head” show off the band’s punk bona fides, basically giving the impression of amps shuddering and paint blistering off of dingy club walls. Those tracks are definitely joined by others in fulfilling the punk rock mandate, but the most jolting tracks on Jettison are those that bring in a new texture. “When the Walls Come Down” has some of the easy comfort with time-tested rock ‘n’ roll structures that would be a defining characteristic of the band Social Distortion in years ahead, and “Walk in Cold” is unmistakably Naked Raygun while also somehow swiping a bit of the charismatic pop sweep of Close Lobsters. It feels like a reflection of Naked Raygun’s connection to the working class pulse of their hometown that these craftier tracks feel like the band rolling up their figurative sleeves and committing to simply getting a tough, tricky job done.

Jettison closes with an acknowledgment of the company Naked Raygun is proud to keep in the form of a ferocious live version of “Suspect Device,” originally by Stiff Little Fingers. Naked Raygun didn’t invent the kind of music they play, the choice suggests. Instead, they just took something that was already wild and enthralling and did their level best to be solid contributors to the overall endeavor. Their devotion to the cause yields great rewards.


other ball

593. Various Artists, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball (The Music) (1982)

The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball was staged over four nights at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1981. An extension of the benefit events that had then been happening for several years, partially conceived and organized by John Cleese and raising funds for Amnesty International. Cleese’s conception was to create events that were entirely showcases for British comedy, but the dynamic shifted a bit in the third edition, held in 1979, when Pete Townshend made a show-stopping surprise appearance, playing a few songs on acoustic guitar. When it came time for a follow-up, all agreed that the show should be a more even mix of comedy and music, and director Julien Temple, fresh off the Sex Pistols flick The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, was hire to shoot the event for a concert film.

The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball also lent itself well to a spinoff album, or indeed albums. There was one album devoted to the comedy acts, including Rowan Atkinson, Dame Edna Everage, and Billy Connolly, and another that assembled music performances. Following Townshend’s example, most of the acts opt for stripped down versions of their most famous songs. Bob Geldof and Johnnie Fingers, of the Boomtown Rats, turn in a lean rendering on “I Don’t Like Mondays,” and Phil Collins offers a strikingly tender “In the Air Tonight.” Sting’s solo versions of Police hits “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” are almost definitive takes on the songs, emphasizing the precision of his songwriting.

Almost inevitably, the album has its less engaging stretches, such as the trio of bland blues cool-downs by Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck (only “Farther Up the Road,” a cover of a Bobby “Blue” Bland song, generates any heat) or Donovan doing his British Dylan thing on “Catch the Wind.” And the requisite big jam to end the album is a tepid, Sting-sung version of “I Shall Be Released” that is like a withering hedge made into song. If the album is only sporadically successful, at least the cause it supports is worthy. It’s nice to think that every play given the record by college radio raised the awareness of Amnesty International in the U.S., even if only a smidge.

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 — #600 to #597

elvis taking

600. Elvis Costello, Taking Liberties (1980)

There were a lot of trips to the record store for anyone who committed to being an Elvis Costello completist in the early years of his career. Following the release of his debut album with backing band the Attractions, My Aim is True, Costello put out new music at a steady clip. From 1977 on, Costello released at least one new full-length album every year until every page of the 1985 calendar was flipped without an addition to his stacked discography. And all that product still didn’t account for everything. In late 1980, Costello had enough spare bits floating around to put out the collection Taking Liberties.

Put together for the North American market (the U.K. and Europe got a similar package titled Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers), Taking Liberties includes several B-sides, cuts that were left off of U.S. version of his albums, some soundtrack filler, and a couple songs that hadn’t yet been pressed onto record. It’s almost inevitable that such a roundup of material is going to have a slapdash feel, but this is also an era when Costello was at the peak of his formidable powers, in both songwriting and performance. The jabbing punk song “Clean Money,” expertly tuneful “Tiny Steps,” and bounding “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” are castoffs that are stronger than most artists’ best swings.

There’s also evidence of a little extra care in the sequencing, giving Taking Liberties a better sense of purpose. Placing the anti-Tory “Sunday’s Best” back-to-back with “Crawling to the U.S.A.,” a song decrying U.S. foreign policy, is surely no accident. The album also provides a strong sense of Costello’s range, with room for country-tinged numbers “Radio Sweetheart” and “Stranger in the House,” as well a stomping R&B, with Costello doing right by Betty Everett on a cover of “Getting Mighty Crowded.” One of the only places where Costello falters is on a reclamation of one of his own songs, as his run through “Girls Talk” is slack compared to the definitive Dave Edmunds version.

Many artists raid their vaults as means of stalling while in creative dry spell. That wasn’t the case for the relentlessly prolific Costello. Around two months after Taking Liberties, Costello released Trust, his first of two new studio albums in 1981.


stewart tonight

599. Rod Stewart, Tonight I’m Yours (1981)

“Tonight I’m Yours (Don’t Hurt Me),” the opening track to the similarly titled album, is representative of Rod Stewart’s artistic sensibility at that point in his career. It’s clearly an attempt at a new wave song, but delivered with a level of indifference that makes it seem as though it was crafted by people who’d never actually heard an example of the pop trend of the moment. They read about new wave in a magazine, figured they had the gist of it, knocked out a track quickly, and headed off to the pub to watch some football.

The respect Stewart duly earned in the early portion of his career was severely eroded away during the latter half of the nineteen-seventies, when he gladly acquiesced to the trend of disco music, most notably on “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” one of the worst chart-toppers of all time. By the early-eighties, Stewart was merely coasting along. Tonight I’m Yours has several lackluster originals, such as the big hollowed out rock song “Only a Boy” and the hit single “Young Turks,” which sounds like the result of Bob Seger writing a song for Dire Straits. The true depths of the album, though, are found on the cover songs. Stewart’s thoroughly bored take on Ace’s “How Long” is bad enough; his grotesque mangling of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” is criminal.

Tonight I’m Yours was a hit for Stewart, but there were also sign’s of a commercial softening that would persist and then grow through the decade that followed. Perpetual reinvention grew trickier for him to pull off, at least until he finally accepted he’d — and his audience — had aged to the point where blandly crooning the standards was his best option.


flesh live

598. Flesh for Lulu, Long Live the New Flesh (1987)

Flesh for Lulu spent their first few years as a band pinging from one frustration to another. They had their successes at home in the U.K., but they were quickly countered by setbacks, including label fickleness that hindered their ability to steadily release music. Then things turned decisively in their favor thanks to the savior of many an alternative rock band in the eighties. Flesh for Lulu landed a song in a John Hughes–produced movie.

“I Go Crazy” was included on the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack. Its electrified rhythm and buzzing guitars were the bed for chewy nonsense lyrics (“All the stars flew away a long time ago/ Isn’t that nice?/ Like Miami Vice“), making it a perfect track for budding goth fans who didn’t want their music to be too dark. One year later, Flesh for Lulu got a big promotional push to go with their new album, Long Live the New Flesh. “I Go Crazy,” naturally, was plopped onto the U.S. version of the album, serving as the opening track. The second track, “Postcards from Paradise,” is even better. It’s a near-perfect piece of power pop, with a vividly catchy hook and a gleaming romanticism.

The rest of Long Live the New Flesh is a significant step down in quality, with tracks locked into mediocre, thudding grooves. The numbing repetition found on “Siamese Twist” is a characteristic example. And it doesn’t get much better when the band varies their approach, as on the glammy ballad “Way to Go.” By the time they’re puffing themselves up to almost sound like U2 taking a crack at glam rock, on “Sleeping Dogs,” it’s clear the album is a lost cause. As subsequent album would further verify, Flesh for Lulu was a fine singles band.


dead lizard

597. The Dead Milkmen, Big Lizard in My Backyard (1985)

A homegrown fan base in a band’s main city of operation doesn’t necessarily promise broader success. Even so, “Bitchin Camaro” was obviously a college radio hit waiting to happen. As The Dead Milkmen’s drummer Dean “Clean” Sabatino later recounted, the song was a fan favorite from the beginning, boosted by local radio to become a live show sing-along (or shout-along, probably) well before it showed up as the centerpiece of Big Lizard in My Backyard, the band’s proper debut album after a few self-released cassettes. As college radio was findings its voice, “Bitchin Camaro” tapped into the insolence, recklessness, and dismissive sense of humor that would be some of the key characteristics of programming on the left end of the dial.

If nothing else on Big Lizard in My Backyard is as grabbing and instantly memorable as the Dead Milkmen’s signature song, the rest of the material is properly aligned in sensibility and execution. Caustically comic, pogoing punk songs are strewn across the album, blasting in with bratty, chanted lyrics and stopping with a cheery clatter before the jokes wear thin. Some of the material definitely hasn’t aged well (I will obliquely refer to, but not explicitly name, a certain song about visiting the zoo), but it’s remarkable how much of the snarling protest found on the record remains relevant. “Violent School” is about the ugly presence of guns in learning institutions, and “Right Wing Pigeons,” which posits that the general positions of the GOP and their ilk are part of a plot by space aliens to destroy the human race, has changed from loopy satire to as plausible as any other explanation for the ever more bonkers behavior from one end of the U.S. political spectrum.

The album is peppered with little, hard gems, such as the anti-beach “Beach Song,” the warped hoedown “Rastabilly,” and “Nutrition,” which shows that punk nihilism needn’t extend to unhealthy diet choices. The Dead Milkmen fire out their music like buckshot blasts. That meant a lot of songs went astray, but plenty hit meaty targets, too.


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