College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #684 to #681

gaucho dan

684. Steely Dan, Gaucho (1980)

For a band renowned for the meticulousness of their recordings, Steely Dan endured a remarkable amount of messiness on the way to Gaucho, their eighth studio album and their final effort until a reunion launched more than a decade later. Coming off the 1977 album Aja, easily the biggest commercial success of the band’s career, Steely Dan stalwarts Walter Becker and Donald Fagen decided to seek out a new corporate benefactors since their longtime label ABC Records was clearly on its last legs. The duo signed with Warner Bros., but they then became enmeshed in a nasty legal scrap when MCA Records purchased the remnants of ABC and insisted they held the rights to release any new Steely Dan material. MCA eventually prevailed.

Becker also experienced a slew of personal problems that complicated his professional duties. He was using drugs at a daunting level, sustained significant injuries when he was struck by a car in a New York City street, and his girlfriend at the time, Karen Roberta Stanley, died of an overdose at his home. Whatever attempts Becker might have made to seek refuge in the comforting familiarity of the studio were thwarted by the contentious atmosphere he and Fagen generated with the New York City studio musicians they relied upon to realize their exacting vision of the songs they wrote. Wherever Becker and Fagen turned, things were not going well.

For other bands, such excessive tumult might manifest as a raggedy record, but Gaucho is as firmly lacquered as any other Steely Dan outing. The dull fusion jazz flow of the title cut is entirely characteristic. It’s unquestionable that the craft of the song is impeccable, but it’s remarkably soulless. Similarly,  “Babylon Sisters” is so laid back it becomes borderline inert, and “Third World Man” unleashes floodwaters of tepid rock. Steely Dan eventually came under some scrutiny for the misogynistic attitude embedded in their lyrics, a tendency that worsened later, but is present in the creepy “Hey Nineteen.” The lyrics have a nasty dismissiveness as the pouts about the lack of cultural acumen in a girlfriend more than ten years younger than the singer: “That’s ‘Retha Franklin/ She don’t remember Queen of Soul/ It’s hard times befallen soul survivors/ She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.”

Gaucho was another hit for Steely Dan, notching enough sales to go platinum and yielding two Top 40 singles. In other respects, their fortunes did not improve from the grim times of the recording process. Becker was sued by Stanley’s family, who contending her overdose death was a direct result of his influence. That case was decided in Becker’s favor, but a different legal action caused more trouble. Keith Jarrett sued the band for plagiarism, claiming “Gaucho” stole from his 1974 track “Long As You Know You’re Living Yours.” When asked about the similarity between the two songs by Musician magazine, Fagen basically fessed up: “Hell, we steal. We’re the robber barons of rock ‘n’ roll.” Officially, Jarrett now holds a co-writing credit on Gaucho‘s title track.

 

prince around

683. Prince, Around the World in a Day (1985)

The week that Prince released Around the World in a Day, his seventh studio album, its predecessor, Purple Rain, was still in the Top 40 of the Billboard album chart. Partner to the film of the same name, Purple Rain pushed the diminutive Minnesotan into the stratosphere of music stardom. The album landed five singles in the Billboard Top 10, two of them topping the chart, spent more than two years on the album chart, and won Prince two of his first three Grammys (in the same ceremony, he picked up a trophy for writing Chaka Khan’s “I Feel for You”). The month before Around the World in a Day was released, Prince picked up an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, Purple Rain managing to best The Muppets take Manhattan and Songwriter.

Despite the massive success of Purple Rain, Prince wasn’t really feeling any pressure to top himself, mostly because he purposefully threw himself into the creative process for Around the World in a Day so quickly. Any temptation to eagerly replicate the sound that had proven irresistible to listeners was elided by getting to work before the enthusiastic response registered.

“You know how easy it would have been to open Around the World in a Day with the guitar solo that’s on the end of “Let’s Go Crazy”?” Prince said to Rolling Stone. “You know how easy it would have been to just put it in a different key? That would have shut everybody up who said the album wasn’t half as powerful. I don’t want to make an album like the earlier ones. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to put your albums back to back and not get bored, you dig? I don’t know how many people can play all their albums back to back with each one going to different cities.”

The city Prince travels to on Around the World in a Day is awash in luxurious psychedelia. The title cut opens the album with a blissed out swirl of sounds, providing a hint of the implied travelogue with tingles of Middle Eastern musical influence. Hit single “Raspberry Beret” engages in a similar seductive swirl, as does the sideways funk of “Tamborine.” Prince courts overt oddity with the restless sonic shifts built into “The Ladder,” and the thumping “America,” which warps “America the Beautiful” to his bidding. The album closes with the tiger prowl of “Temptation,” stretching more than eight minutes and incorporating an art rock diversion that could have come from one of Laurie Anderson’s steamer trunks. Not everything seeks to bend time and space, though. “Condition of the Heart” is comparatively simple, a cooing ballad built on delicate piano and plush surrounding production.

Obviously, Prince didn’t need to openly chase mass approval to win it at this point in the career. Around the World in a Day topped the album chart and sold more than two million copies. Two of its singles peaked in the Billboard Top 10 (“Raspberry Beret” was boxed out of the top spot by Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill”). Only measured against Purple Rain could the album be viewed as a disappointment.

 

who kids

682. The Who, The Kids are Alright (1979)

Jeff Stein had zero experience making movies when he approached the Who about making a documentary. A fervent fan of the band since he was a teenager, Stein envisioned editing together live performance footage captured over the years to convey the power of the band onstage. Though initially reluctant, lead guitarist and bandleader Pete Townshend acquiesced when Stein suggested such a film could essentially serve the same promotional purpose as a concert tour, buying the Who a little relief for the rigors of life on the road. The resulting film, The Kids are Alright, debuted at the Cannes film festival in 1979 and went into general release a couple weeks later.

The double album soundtrack naturally adhered to the film’s scrapbook approach, pressing onto record many of the showcased live performances. It includes a version of”My Generation” culled from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967 (which opens the film), and an especially fierce “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere” from a 1965 appearance on Ready Steady Go! A trio of live songs from Woodstock are in the mix, as is a brisk, boisterous “Happy Jack” from the famed 1970 concert at Leeds University. To help fill out the film, Stein convinced the band to perform for his cameras at Shepperton Studios, a show represented by, among others, an absolutely thunderous live version of “Baba O’Riley.”

At a time when the Who was shifting into venerable rock icon status, The Kids are Alright provided a handy greatest-hits-style retrospective that also made the argument that band was one of the great live acts in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s not a bad result for a project by a neophyte filmmaker inspired entirely on his own fannish enthusiasm.

 

seger nine

681. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Nine Tonight (1981)

For rock acts across the nineteen-seventies and into the nineteen-eighties, one of the key markers of success was the label support to issue a live album as a two record set. Detroit’s Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band first checked that box with Live Bullet, released in 1976. Actually the first record that included Seger’s backing band in the official billing, Live Bullet became the group’s highest charting album to that point, clearing the path for their next three studio albums — Night Moves, Stranger in Town, and Against the Wind — to each reach new pinnacles of commercial success. Seger had never before placed a single in the Billboard Top 40. He saw nine cross that threshold from the trio of studio albums, and two more just missed. Armed with a cluster of new fan favorites, the time was right to again indulge in the double live strategy.

Drawn from 1980 concerts in Detroit and Boston, Nine Tonight is largely a dutiful tracking through the recent hits. Fourteen of the album’s seventeen originated on one of the three preceding studio efforts. A strong cover of “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You,” a minor hit for Otis Clay, is one of the outliers. It served as a single, climbing all the way to #5 on the Billboard chart, something of a rarity for a live track. There are some other strong cuts on Nine Tonight —  the version of “Old Time Rock & Roll” here is leaner and tougher than the original, and “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” is raucous enough to resemble the psychobilly genre then still emerging — but, like a lot of live albums, it mostly comes across as a mere memento, most effective as a reminder for ticket buyers of the nice time they had sweating alongside their fellow disciples in an echoing arena.

 

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 — #688 to #685

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688. The Clash, Black Market Clash (1980)

For U.S. audiences, new material from the Clash arrived at a dizzying rate across the final months of 1979 and through 1980. The band’s 1977 self-titled debut, originally deemed too rough for the U.S, market by the executives at CBS Records, finally hit stores in the summer of 1979, its track listing scrambled with different material added. Then the double album masterpiece London Calling arrived in the final weeks of that year. Before 1980 was up, the Clash issued a yet more ambitious effort: the triple album Sandinista! In between those two studio albums, the band’s label kept the engine stoked in the U.S. by stitching together a collection largely comprised on tracks that had been excised in transport as the earlier albums journeyed across the Atlantic. Issued as a 10-inch record, Black Market Clash was best described as a mini-album.

Black Market Clash leads with the ragged fist fight of “Capital Radio One,” a track that was one of the band’s most coveted rarities at the time, otherwise only available on Capital Radio EP that was offered, in 1977, as a premium giveaway to NME readers. “Pressure Drop” first appeared as a U.K. B-side, but the sweetly ambling version included here is a slightly different take, and the melded “Bankrobber/Robber Dub,” which is the clearest example of the band’s reggae influence, includes material that hadn’t seen previous release.

Cataloging the more unique offerings on Black Market Clash is fine, but the mini-album isn’t special because of the way it might have appealed to collectors at the time. Instead, it’s a valuable popping flashbulb illuminating some of the work of one of the best bands of all time when they were in their undefeated prime. The blistering “Cheat” and the snaky, irresistible “Armagideon Time” are astonishments, then and now, no matter what record holds them. Like practically everything bearing the band’s name at the time, Black Market Clash is a gift.

 

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687. Various Artists, Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (1981)

The live event billed as Concerts for the People of Kampuchea began as an attempt to orchestrate that impossible dream of the nineteen-seventies: a reunion of the Beatles. Seeking a splashy way to raise money to help starving refugees fleeing the brutal state formed when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, Kurt Waldheim, then the secretary-general of the United Nations, approached Paul McCartney and pitched a benefit concert putting him onstage again with George Harrison, John Lennon, and Ringo Starr. Three-quarters of the band expressed willingness to participate, but Lennon balked. A clear all-or-nothing proposition, Harrison and Starr followed Lennon’s lead and dropped out. McCartney still wanted to help, so he offered Wings and, as a more commensurate compensation, a lineup of the Rockestra collaborators of British rock icons he’d assembled in 1978.

Staged at London’s Hammersmith Odeon over four nights in December 1979, the concerts featured different band lineups for each show, encompassing both well-established rock headliners and new wave upstarts. The veterans are given the most real estate on the accompanying double album, released around two years later. The Who take up the whole first side, and McCartney and his various collaborators cover the entire of side four. The choice is wholly understandable, but it makes for a fairly lopsided listening experience. The Who, performing just over three weeks after eleven concertgoers died in the crush of people rushing the stage at their show in Cincinnati, sound detached as they run through their most familiar hits. Only the more novel selection “Sister Disco,” taken from the more recent album Who Are You, is consistently engaging, its peppering of keyboard freak-outs providing jolts of energy. McCartney, carrying no burden of recent concert tragedy, sounds similarly sedate.

The only other act given more than than a single track (not counting the two afforded to Rockpile, since one, “Little Sister,” is more of a showcase for Robert Plant with the band receding to studio player anonymity) is the Pretenders, on stage one day after the U.K. release of their debut LP. Their trio of songs — “The Wait,” “Precious,” and “Tattooed Love Boys” — demonstrate exactly how much Chrissie Hynde could accomplish with pure, unadulterated attitude, especially when backed by the exceptional musicianship of the original roster. The tracks also make the implicit argument that the album would have benefited from a more robust showing by the other artists still in the early and eager part of their respective careers. The Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Specials represented by one track apiece is a heartbreaking missed opportunity.

Oddly, the existence of the album took at least one performer by surprise. McCartney reportedly heard a track from it from it on the radio and promptly called the station to chastise them for playing a Wings bootleg. It was only then that he discovered his earlier charitable act had extended to permanent preservation on record.

 

call modern

686. The Call, Modern Romans (1983)

Formed in Santa Cruz, California, the Call were first signed to Mercury Records, which felt they had secured a major act destined to immediately hit it big. The label insisted the group work with a name producer on their debut album, which led to the hiring of Hugh Padgham, coming off of Phil Collins’s Face Value, Genesis’s Abacab, and the Police’s Ghost in the Machine. The Call’s self-titled debut was released in 1982 and barely registered.

“They spent a fortune on the first one and got almost no sales,” Scott Musick, drummer for the Call, told Musician.

When it came time for the follow-up, the Call were basically on their own, which was probably their preference anyway. The resulting album, Modern Romans, is booming, earnest, politicized rock music. “Back from the Front,” all booming melody and simplistic activist sentiment (“Now the truth about war/ It’s a total waste/ It’s the ultimate drug/ It’s the ultimate taste”) demonstrates how close the band could get to the anthemic sanctimony U2 was just starting to perfect. The overly ponderous “Violent Times” provides reinforcing evidence.

The Call could also be commanding and sharply inventive. Those qualities are found across Modern Romans. Single “The Walls Came Down” is splendid, methodical and genuinely soaring in its rock fervor. “Turn a Blind Eye” sounds like New Model Army with an overt Joy Division influence, and the pogo stride of the title cut is difficult to resist. Modern Romans is a mixed bag, imperfect in a way that seems utterly fair for a band still finding its way. They weren’t copying U2 — who were only on their third album at the time Modern Romans was released — they were developing a similar sound concurrently. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if the Call had another fortunate turn or two.

 

pat nervous

685. Pat Benatar, Get Nervous (1982)

Pat Benatar approached the recording of her fourth album, Get Nervous, from a place of contentment and success. The rare — at the time — revered rock performer without a Y chromosome, Benatar was coming off a pair of multiplatinum albums, including the more recent Precious Time, her first to top the Billboard chart. During the layoff from recording and touring the hit album had earned her, Benatar got married to Neil Giraldo, her longtime love, guitarist, and creative collaborator. According to Benatar, she and her cohorts had the luxury of going back to the studio when they were ready to instead of when the label was pressing for more product.

“We wanted to be together, to work together again,” said Benatar. “We had new ideas, a new player, and, with Neil and I married, the atmosphere during recording was a joy. Everyone was relaxed and happy to be with each other.”

The new player was keyboardist Charlie Giordano, and, with his help, the album bears some of the new wave influence that was a regular feature on rock albums of the day. “Anxiety (Get Nervous)” has a sprightly agitation reflective of the musical trend and also nicely in line with the title, and hit single “Shadows of the Night” traverses the narrow border between nineteen-seventies rock and nineteen-eighties glossy pop with aplomb. The by-the-numbers rock of “Little Too Late” and power ballad “Fight It Out” are suitable examples of their respective styles, neither inspired nor trite. Album closer “Silent Partner” sounds like the opening salvo to a grand rock saga that Benatar would never get around to — or maybe be pretentious enough to stoop to — recording.

Get Nervous was another success for Benatar. It was her third straight to make the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 40 singles. Her popularity started to soften shortly after this, every subsequent album hitting its chart peak a little lower. Get Nervous wasn’t Benatar’s last success, but it arguably closed out her time as one of the dominant figures in rock music.

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 — #692 to #689

tallulah-the-go-betweens692. Go-Betweens, Tallulah (1987)

Tallulah might not have delivered the Go-Betweens their first experience with professional disappointment, nor even their most pronounced. And yet the recording experience and subsequent related duties were peppered with enough frustrations that the album stands as a key delineating point for the band. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Go-Betweens would fold two years later.

Broader commercial success was the stated goal as the Go-Betweens embarked on Tallulah. The Australian band stood in the golden light of critical acclaim, but that hadn’t yet translated into record sales or hit singles. Their previous album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, made only the most modest headway on the charts of their homeland and register nary a ripple anywhere else. The band went into the studio with producer Craig Leon expecting to play together, attempting to capture some of the energy of their live performances. Instead, Leon meticulously recorded individual tracks and assembled them, working so slowly that a sizable chunk of the budget and the scheduled recording time was expended on only two cuts. Leon was replaced by Richard Preston, and the Go-Betweens dashed off the rest of their new songs as quickly as possible.

Despite the compromised recording process, Tallulah is a fine album, mostly because the material crafted by perfectly paired songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster was bound to push through whatever hardship threatened to disguise them. Opening track and lead single “Right Here” is a fine example: pristinely perfect pop, sunshiny enough to disguise some scalding lyrics (“I know you’re thirty-two/ But you look fifty-five/ You walk around/ With your eyes wide open/ But you’re barely alive”). “I Just Get Caught Out” has a similar shimmery energy, as does the lilting “Bye Bye Pride.”

The Go-Betweens were from Australia, but London was essentially their professional home base. Accordingly, there’s a strong Britpop feel to the album, whether in the Bowie-esque rule-bending around the fringes on “Cut It Out” or the mild Echo and the Bunnymen vibe to “The House That Jack Kerouac Built.” The leaner cuts especially benefit from the sheen. “Hope Then Strife” is what might be expected if the mid-nineteen-eighties Violent Femmes adopted lush British production.

Other problems were cropping up in the Go-Betweens camp. Developing interpersonal friction was compounded by the revelation that Forster was secretly mulling a solo record. Then Tallulah was released, and the fervently sought mainstream embrace didn’t happen. For the next album, the group decided to make significant changes in their process and even their geography. Creatively, it would pay off beautifully.

 

bolshoi giants

691. The Bolshoi, Giants (1985)

Arguably the biggest band to hail from Trowbridge, a modest town in South West England, the Bolshoi emerged in the mid-eighties with Giants, their debut EP. Poised between lithe British pop and swooning goth churn, the music on the release transcends the moments when it threatens to lapse into derivativeness with a sense of odd adventure. Led by Trevor Flynn (who would later become know under his real name, Trevor Tanner), the Bolshoi showed an immediate facility for a certain doomed romanticism that sold plenty of jet black hair dye during the decade.

Released by I.R.S. Records, the U.S. version of the Giants leads with the dark, lush, and stealthily menacing “Happy Boy.” The track establishes the template nicely, as does the Cure-like “Fly.” From there, the Bolshoi sticks with the sound while simultaneously traipsing into strange unsettled territory. The thick morass of gloomy goth sounds on the title cut are perhaps not that far off from any number of kindred bands of the time. But the tingly “By the River” has an inner pulse of experimentation that hints at greater depths.

Encouraged by the warm reaction to Giants, the Bolshoi relocated to London and got to work on building a proper repertoire. By the following year, they’d be out with their first full-length, and a brief — but interesting — career was underway

 

wire between

690. Wire Train, Between Two Words (1985)

Wire Train built up just enough of a following in their hometown of San Francisco that they found themselves in odd company following the release of their sophomore album, Between Two Words. In the ninth annual iteration of the Bay Area Music Awards, Wire Train were nominated in the outstanding album category, vying against John Fogerty’s Centerfield, Night Ranger’s Seven Wishes, Santana’s Beyond Appearances, and — prepare to wince — Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla. There’s a wavering quality level across that list of titles, but those are still major acts for a fledging band to be placed among. Wire Train had promise.

Between Two Worlds is a quintessential example of the sort of college rock from U.S. bands that a certain breed of student programmer found irresistible. The tracks are earnest and earthy, but also crisply produced. It sounded as professional as the stuff on commercial radio — or at least MTV — but it had a certain hangdog charm that tagged it as distant from the offerings of the true pop and rock titans. “Last Perfect Thing” might sound a little bit like early INXS, had they been raised on rock songs from the American heartland, but there was no doubt that Wire Train was miles away from ever making an album like Kick.

Songwriters Kurt Herr and Kevin Hunter had a knack for hitting the pocket on fine college rock cuts. There’s a swooning intensity to “Skills of Summer” and a brisk energy on “Two Persons” that make them perfect playlist fodder. But Between Two Words also suggests there was only so many cookies in the jar they raided. The ballad “No Pretties” quickly grows dull, and the pining “I Will” (“Cry for the time/ I wish I could see your eyes”) is similarly generic. The limitations might be better assigned to the playing of the whole band, given that wares of no less formidable a songwriter than Bob Dylan can get finessed into blandness, proven by the flat cover of “God on Our Side.”

 

Wire Train’s Between Two Words lost the Bay Area Music Award for the year’s top album. Centerfield took the prize. Much as I’m inclined to champion the college rock band, the choice was correct. Fogerty’s record is better.

 

married soundtrack

689. Married to the Mob soundtrack (1988)

“Music was my first love, movies came second,” director Jonathan Demme once explained. And that original affection figured significantly in the procession of wonderful film which bore his signature. He presided over several concert films during his career, with the most notable, Stop Making Sense, still standing as the probable peak of the form. But exceptional music also flowed through his narrative features, Demme’s exemplary and beautifully esoteric taste buoying the projects. Demme knew it, too.

“It can be like something that saves you in a scene that isn’t working that great — the right music can make a weak scene acceptable,” Demme told Rolling Stone. “It can also add a whole other dimension to a scene. It can send it right into the ozone.”

Catching the wave of the soundtrack boom of the nineteen-eighties, Demme’s terrific comedy Married to the Mob resulted in the strongest album spun from one his films, excepting the concert documents. Leading with “Jump in the River,” a track from thrilling newcomer Sinéad O’Connor that she would carry over to her sophomore full-length a couple years later, the album is like a generous chunk of a college radio show programmed by an especially strong DJ. Longtime Demme faves New Order, Tom Tom Club, and the Feelies are duly represented, and the filmmaker orchestrates some inspired covers, recruiting Debbie Harry to take a turn on the Castaways’ “Liar Liar” and Brian Eno to drift across a version of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”

There are more significant reasons to celebrate Married to the Mob than the soundtrack. Even so, the accompanying album seems like the truest distillation of Demme’s music taste. That is its own grand gift.

 

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 — #696 to #693

fogelberg innocent

696. Dan Fogelberg, The Innocent Age (1981)

There was a point when music artists of a certain stature couldn’t simply release a new record. An extra level of import was required, and so singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg followed his greatest commercial success to that point, the 1979 multi-platinum release Phoenix, with a sprawling double album that he termed a sixteen-part “song cycle” about the gradual erosion of childhood innocence. Although concept albums were fading in stature by the early nineteen-eighties, their off-putting pretension countered by the brisk joys of new wave, The Innocent Age proved to be another major hit for Fogelberg, placing three singles in the Billboard Top 10 and again moving millions of copies.

The album opens with Fogelberg playing the sprightly troubadour “Nexus,” complete with ponderous lyrics that might make the members of Jethro Tull call for a rewrite (“And balanced on the precipice/ The moment must reveal/ Naked in the face of time/ Our race within the wheel”). The track is reasonably emblematic of all that follows. While there are occasional cuts that take a bit of rock ‘n’ roll ballast (“Lost in the Sun” sounds like the missing link between the jangle folk rock of Jefferson Airplane and the thudding excess of Jefferson Starship), most of the material is wispy as tracing paper. “The Sand and the Foam” is pure treacle, and wan ballad “Only the Heart May Know” is beyond saving, even by the considerable charm and warmth of Emmylou Harris as a duet partner. The Top 10 singles — “Leader of the Band,” “Same Old Lang Syne,” and “Hard to Say” — collectively stand as the epitome of mellow pop.

The double album’s supposed thematic unity somehow still allows for Fogelberg to give a home to some of his songwriting strays. “Times Like These” appeared on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack one year earlier, and “Run for the Roses” was commissioned by ABC to accompany broadcasts of the Kentucky Derby, allowing Fogelberg to croon lovingly to a horse (“The sun on your withers / The wind in your mane / Could never prepare you/ For what lies ahead”). The tepid theatricality found on “The Lion’s Share” and “Ghosts” echo the intricate music box pop of Harry Nilsson, at least if his records were cloying and bad.

The Innocent Age represents Fogelberg’s commercial peak, in part because his output slowed. It would be three years before his next studio album, and the pop music landscape changed significantly during that time. Subsequent releases settled for lower and lower peaks on the charts, until Fogelberg essentially became a nostalgia act. He passed away in 2007, after an extended battle with prostate cancer.

 

freaks monkey

695. House of Freaks, Monkey on a Chain Gang (1987)

Comprised of only two members, Bryan Harvey on guitar and Johnny Hott on drums, House of Freaks made a splendid racket. The duo’s debut, Monkey on a Chain Gang, is filled with tracks that are potent enough to disguise the fact that there’s not a large outfit banging out the songs. The band sounds lean, but not understaffed. Heightened by Harvey’s rich, keening vocals, the material is consistently forceful.

Without feeling particularly beholden to one bygone style, House of Freaks give the impression that they’re bringing the sum total of rock history into the songs they craft. There’s a clear retro guitar prowl on album opener “Crack in the Sidewalk” and a jabbing, blues ferocity to “You Can Never Go Home,” but more often the influence is less overt. Theres also a smacking modernity that made it easy for these cuts to settle snugly into a college radio playlist.  “40 Years” wouldn’t be out of place on a classic Squeeze album, and “My Backyard” sounds like members of Guadalcanal Diary and the Replacements decided to form a college rock supergroup.

Monkey on a Chain Gang is absolutely loaded, boasting thirteen tracks, not a single one disposable. “Black Cat Bone” is raw and insistent, “Yellow Dog” careens with thrilling velocity, and “Monkey’s Paw” is starkly enticing. Across the tracks, House of Freaks plays with a concentrated energy, as if trying to put every last ounce of themselves on record just in case they didn’t get a chance to make another one. That would have been a reasonable fear, considering the band a rare current act signed to Rhino Records, then as now specialists in colorful reissues. There were more records to come, though, all of them dandy.

Unfortunately, the House of Freaks story ends in tragedy. In 2006, Harvey and his family were victims of a brutal crime when two men invaded their home, killing everyone inside and then trying to cover their crime by setting the structure ablaze. It was Hott who saw the flames and alerted the authorities, leading to the discovery of the crime scene.

 

brains against

694. Bad Brains, I Against I (1986)

According to producer Ron Saint Germain, I Against I, the third release from Bad Brains, was recorded on a shoestring budget. Saint Germain came to the job straight off of studio duties on the one and only album from Duran Duran offshoot band Arcadia, a project where money was essentially a fungible commodity. When Saint Germain was initially told the total allotment of dollars available for I Against I, he assumed it was meant to cover the recording of a single track. Extreme austerity was simply the prevailing model used by the band’s new label, SST Records.

If the lean finances had a negative impact on Bad Brains, it’s absolutely indiscernible on I Against I. The album is absolutely titanic in its outlook and impact, building on the band’s hardcore roots to deliver a set of songs that practically trembled with unpredictability. As an early example in the track listing, Bad Brains packs an album’s worth of shifts onto the title cut. They unleash weirdo metal on “Return to Heaven” and, on “She’s Calling You,” forecast the hard rock and funk combo that would briefly lift Living Colour to rock star status.

For all the bracing sonic wanderings of the album, I Against I is mostly notably for the sheer power flashed by the band, offering the reassurance that punk was always going to be the prevailing piece of their musical personality. There’s the marvelous rockslide of noise that opens “House of Suffering” and the echoing dread on “Secret 77.” In its combination of hardcore hurtling and expert melodizing, “Let Me Help” recalls Hüsker Dü, circa Zen Arcade. Like that exalted Minneapolis trio, Bad Brains deserved breathless plaudits for their fearless creativity.

Impressive as I Against I consistently is, there was wearying drama behind the scenes. Lead singer H.R. experienced one of his regular bouts of dissatisfaction and quite the band not long after the album’s release, leaving some of the tour dates in support of I Against I to replacement Taj Singleton. There were more albums to come, and the personnel tumult following I Against I became as much of a mainstay as the thunderous guitars and pounding drums. Part of the strength of the Bad Brains records, especially I Against I, is that the surrounding messiness is entirely incidental.

 

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693. Pandoras, Stop Pretending (1986)

When the Pandoras signed with Rhino Records, Paula Pierce decided it was time to start over. The frontwoman and chief songwriter for the band, Pierce fired her bandmates and brought in new recruits, briefly leading to a stretch when her disgruntled former cohorts played gigs and recorded music under the Pandoras name, apparently in part to spite her. It was Pierce whose name was on the bottom line of the record deal though, and her version of the group went into the studio with producer Bill Inglot. Stop Pretending, officially the Pandoras’ sophomore full-length, was the result.

Pierce and the Pandoras were expert revivalists, playing a brusque, tough-minded garage rock that could have been airlifted in straight from the late nineteen-sixties. The chunky guitars on “I Didn’t Cry” and the splendid drum and organ interplay on “I’m Your Girl” testify to the band’s fine musicianship, and the tuneful “Anyone But You” is equally iron-clad evidence of the skillful songwriting at play on the album. “You Don’t Satisfy” cuts like a jagged razor, and “Let’s Do Right” pops assertively, suggesting the Bangles if every last one of them was balancing a hefty chip on their respective shoulders. The sunshine-dappled title cut hits the same sweet spot that the Primitives found a couple years later, and thrashing album closer “It Felt Alright” offers the Yin to that Yang.

Perpetually unsettled, the Pandoras left Rhino Records after the release of Stop Pretending, believing they’d have better luck on Elektra Records. Instead, their attempts to make a new album were thwarted. The Pandoras were dropped and wound up briefly on Restless Records, releasing one EP before disbanding. One year after the group broke up, Pierce suffered a brain aneurysm and died. She had celebrated her thirty-first birthday less than two months prior.

 

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 — #700 to #697

dino living700. Dinosaur Jr., You’re Living All Over Me (1987)

Still known as simply Dinosaur at the time, the band fronted by J. Mascis released their sophomore full-length, You’re Living All Over Me, late in 1987. Championed by members of Sonic Youth, the group was picked up by SST Records for the album, providing an immediate cachet, especially among fans of big, loud, guitar-driven music. And that’s what is delivered on the record, thick slabs of hard rock, beholden somewhat to the established titans who’d ruled FM radio for nearly two decades, but also resonantly new and innovative. The tracks on the album sound at once like everything rock ‘n’ roll had ever been and some weird dispatch from a gruffer, grubbier future.

“Little Fury Things” opens You’re Living All Over Me with a spectacular snarl of punk aggression before settling into tuneful thunder, pretty well establishing the band’s general operating framework. Within that framework, it’s remarkable how much variety Mascis and his cohorts — drummer Murph and bassist Lou Barlow — manage to develop. The gargling guitar of “Sludgefeast,” the easygoing tinniness of “In a Jar,” and Hüsker-adjacent blazer “Raisans” are thick with similarities, and yet they all sound just a little bit different from each other, as if it were a procession of different bands taking their own crack at the sound. The distinctive Mascis warble on the lead vocals is arguably the most unifying element, even as it offers the reminder that the band could be a bit of tough sell in the early days, especially when he tilts to truly tuneless intonations, as on “Kracked.” The album rounds out with a couple Barlow compositions, the spectacularly noisy “Lose” and the odd sound collage “Poledo.

“It was like a tornado, a whirlwind of creative energy,” Murph writes in the introduction pages of the 33 1/3 series book about You’re Living All Over Me. “Boom, you just go, something carries you away and sets you down somewhere completely different, like you were in the Wizard of Oz or something. Boom, then it’s done, the storm passes. Everyone wakes up: ‘What happened?'”

 

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699. Lene Lovich, No Man’s Land (1982)

When Lene Lovich reached No Man’s Land, her third full-length studio effort, her relationship with her label, Stiff Records, had turned completely toxic. The label’s head, Dave Robinson, was pressuring Lovich and her producing partner, Les Chappell, to record material with more commercial potential, fixating on the idea that a cover of a Motown song would be ideal. Lovich rejected the notion, preferring to focus on new material, but Robinson stubbornly refused to even listen to the recordings passed along to him. No Man’s Land sat in limbo until Lovich circumvented Robinson to take the album straight to Epic Records, which released her material in the U.S. Robinson was livid, but Lovich got the album into shops.

Some of the tracks on No Man’s Land carry over from the fab 1981 EP New Toy, and everything is infused with Lovich’s adventuresome creativity. The album does open with a cover, though hardly the sort of immediately familiar tune Robinson wanted. Instead “It’s You, Only You (Mein Schmerz)” was an obscurity first recorded three years earlier by the Meteors. Lovich makes it shimmer like a comet’s tail. She also takes a pass at a song written by Jimme O’Neill (then of Fingerprintz and soon to take the frontman role with the Silencers), “Sister Video,” which finds Lovich employing some of Blondie’s most effective pop tricks.

The rest of the album features songs penned by Lovich and Chappell, and there usually vibrancy and personality is solidly in place. There an energizing exploratory spirit, reflected in elements such as the spooky electronic burbles on “Blue Hotel.” And Lovich generally works wonders with her soundscapes. “Walking Low” somehow sounds like a smoothie whirled together out of “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Come as You Are,” and “Wuthering Heights.”

Unsurprisingly, Lovich was entirely disenchanted with Stiff Records in the aftermath of her struggles to get the album released. She was also finding greater satisfaction in other creative pursuits, most notably a stage musical about Mata Hari which she co-wrote and starred in. She left Stiff Records and largely stepped away from the music business. Six years passed before her next album.

 

savage

698. Eurythmics, Savage (1987)

“It was a very faithless album, you know,” Annie Lennox said of Savage, to NME. “In terms of the lyrical content, it was a betrayed soul. Things had reached such ironic proportions that there was nothing to believe in any more.”

The sixth studio album from Eurythmics, Savage was a deliberate attempt to retreat from the massive commercial success the band enjoyed with their previous couple of albums. It was also the first real instance of Lennox and Dave Stewart working as essentially separate units. Stewart was holed up in a French chateau with Olle Romo, who’d handled drum duties on most of the Be Yourself Tonight album. The two of them tinkered around with a new Synclavier Stewart had acquired, eventually building layered tracks of electronic sounds. Stewart gave the tracks to Lennox, who rapidly penned lyrics in her Paris apartment, pouring personal pain and frustration into the words. Savage has some echoes of the icy synth-pop that brought Eurythmics to fame, but far pricklier and aggressive, more of a dare than an invitation.

Opening track “Beethoven (I Love to Listen To)” was released as the first single, though Stewart later claimed it knew it was far too complicated and sonically bizarre to turn into a hit. Instead, it served as sort of a warning shot to radio programmers and fans. There would be nothing along the lines of “Would I Lie to You?” or “Missionary Man” on the new record. Savage is instead home to comparative oddities such as “Shame,” an epic under sedation, and “Do You Want to Break Up?,” which offers glum lyrics (“And I’ve been sad/ I’ve been overjoyed/ So let me disembrace you now/ My little trouble boy”) with deceptive sunniness. Later single “I Need a Man” is arguably a mild echo of the Stax Records sounds borrowed for Be Yourself Tonight, but it’s blistering in its approach.

Sometimes the elements and ideas pile up into a lopsided, teetering tower. “Put the Blame on Me” has Prince-like guitar, a numbingly repetitive dance riff, and Lennox employing a small flood of vocal techniques, including some spoken word that could have come from Laurie Anderson. As if presenting a counterargument to the fuss, the album closes with the acoustic ballad “I Need You” followed by gospel-tinged “Brave New Day,” which gives over about half the track to Lennox’s voice alone. Both cuts make the case for simplicity as the better showcase for the talented of Lennox and Stewart.

The band’s stated intent to cool their commercial prospects succeeded, perhaps too well. None of the singles from Savage made it into the Billboard Top 40, the first time that happened with an Eurythmics album (not including the soundtrack for Michael Radford’s film 1984) since “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” became a worldwide smash. There would be only one more trip to the Top 40, with the barely-a-hit “Don’t Ask Me Why,” and Eurythmics folded after one more album, with the occasional reunion in later years.

 

cheap dream

697. Cheap Trick, Dream Police (1979)

Cheap Trick had their fourth studio album, Dream Police, finished up and ready for release at the beginning of 1979. Then plans got derailed when an unexpected commercial breakthrough occurred. The prior three albums from the Rockford, Illinois band hadn’t generated much interest in the U.S., but they were, for some reason, big in Japan. The label sent Cheap Trick to tour the island nation in the spring of 1978, and the fan response was overwhelming. To further capitalize on the excitement, two shows is Tokyo were recorded and edited together to form the live album Cheap Trick at Budokan, which was intended for release in Japan only. But then an associated promotional disc entitled From Tokyo to You started earning radio airplay, and demand for the full live album picked up. By one estimate, over 30,000 import copies of Cheap Trick at Budokan were sold before Epic Records finally put out a U.S. version in early 1979, around four months after the Japanese release. The single “I Want You to Want Me” charted in the Billboard Top 10

With Cheap Trick at Budokan selling briskly, Epic Records held off on releasing Dream Police, finally bringing the album out in late September of 1979. The lean, punchy appeal of Cheap Trick’s music on the live album is almost entirely absent on Dream Police, which features slick production by the group’s regular producer, Tom Werman. The dopey title cut and the Beatlesque power ballad “Voices” earned Cheap Trick two more trips to the Top 40, but the tracks are drab. “The House is Rockin’ (With Domestic Problems)” is presumably an earnest attempt to cover a serious topic in a straightforward rock song, but it just winds up seeming glib. There’s also the entirely unconvincing “Gonna Raise Hell,” which, stretched to over nine minutes, is also an endurance test. Only the brash “I Know What I Want” has an energy that recalls the live album that brought the band stardom.

 

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 — #704 to #701

manzanera

704. Phil Manzanera, K-Scope (1978)

Phil Manzanera was a busy fellow in the late nineteen-seventies. Undoubtedly most famous as the lead guitarist for Roxy Music, Manzanera was dabbling in all sorts of other projects. Tops among them was the band 501, which included fellow Roxy Music veteran Brian Eno. Originally conceived as a live act only, the group gelled well enough to release the studio album Listen Now, in 1977, and they started working on a follow-up shortly thereafter. Things shifted, however, and that material wound up as the core of K-Scope, officially the second solo album from Manzanera.

Drawing on the creativity of many contributors, Manzanera makes an album that zips zanily around rock subgenres, somehow managing to feel wholly apart from the most tired trends of the day. Not every track is strong — or even particularly good — but the freewheeling spirit keeps K-Scope consistently buoyant. Among the better cuts, “Remote Control” has a new wave crispness, and “Slow Motion TV” is like the Damned circa Strawberries, when they followed poppier instincts. On the downside, reggae-influenced “Cuban Crisis” lands somewhere between 10cc, Steely Dan, and Sting at his most blandly appropriative, and “Walking Through Heaven’s Door” starts at drippy soft rock then shifts into a bland musical trot that sounds like a discard from a markedly misguided rock opera.

The instrumentals on the album are generally stronger, whether the punchy, jazz-inflected explorations of the title cut or the edgy musical probing on “N-Shift.” There’s nothing particular wrong with the vocals or the lyrics, but there’s an inescapable sense that what Manzanera and crew really want to be doing is noodling around with different tones, melodies, and rhythms until they land on something novel. They reach that goal enough to make K-Scope a solid enough record to overcome its flaws.

 

clash rope

703. The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope (1978)

The Only Band That Matters were formally introduced to U.S. audiences with Give ‘Em Enough Rope, their second album. The Clash’s label, CBS Records, simply felt the band’s self-titled debut was too brash and raw to make any headway stateside. Record-buyers in the U.K. were a varied enough lot that Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols could levitate all the way to the top of the album chart (amusingly taking over peak position from Cliff Richard and the Shadows and ceding it to Bread), but the equivalent U.S. sales tally was all Rumours all the time.

To increase the likelihood that the Clash would make a more marketable album in their sophomore outing, CBS Records paired them with Sandy Pearlman, the regular producer of Blue Öyster Cult. For a band that was used to bashing out songs and then picking up the pieces — or, more likely, letting the pieces lie and rot — the persnickety polish Pearlman brought to the recording process was tedious. But Pearlman wasn’t trying to disguise the Clash’s insurrectionist soul. If anything, he shaped the platform to properly showcase the Clash, distinguishing them from other punk acts whose no-fucks-to-give disregard for the niceties of performance could come across as a reactionary insolence of youth, born of uncertainty and bound to fade. Despite CBS’s misgivings, The Clash is a great album. It’s also true that Give ‘Em Enough Rope is the album that proved the Clash were a realer deal than their contemporaries.

As if to prove that refinement doesn’t necessitate softening, the album opens with the immediate explosion “Safe European Home,” about the troubles endured by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones when they were seen as easy marks on a writing trip to Jamaica. The cut is political, fevered, conflicted, and wry in its miserable self-appraisal. There’s nothing easy about it, and matters remain similarly knotty on the propulsive “Guns on the Roof” and “Tommy Gun,” the latter highlighted by the rat-a-tat drumming of Topper Headon, new to the lineup for the second album, as Strummer rages about the glorification of violence.

“Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad” is downright jaunty, partially attributable to the barrelhouse piano playing by Blue Oyster Cult’s Allen Lanier. Jones take his turn at the lead microphone on “Stay Free,” which takes nineteen-sixties sunshine pop and gives it a hard twist, and the album closes with the melancholy autobiography “All the Young Punks,” which was renamed “That’s No Way to Spend Your Youth” on original U.S. pressings of the album. Across all the tracks, the band plays with an urgency that suggests the plugs might be pulled from the amps at any moment, so if they’re going to say something, they’d better say it now.

As the label’s overt stab at creating product that would work in the U.S. market, Give ‘Em Enough Rope didn’t really work out. While it performed admirably in the U.K. the album stalled at #128 on the Billboard chart, two places lower than the peak of The Clash, when it saw its delayed U.S. release in 1979. Even so, Give ‘Em Enough Rope must be seen as pivotal. If nothing else, it is what the band built on and corrected from when they made their next studio full-length, an album that is unerringly in the mix in any reasonable, informed discussion of the greatest rock albums of all time.

 

split waiata

702. Split Enz, Waiata (1981)

If the original plan had been followed, the sixth album from Split Enz would have had a different title in practically every country in which it was sold. Waiata is a word from the Māori language, spoken by the indigenous people of Split Enz’s homeland of New Zealand, that translates to “celebratory song.” In Australia, the album was called Corroboree, because that is the rough equivalent of the same word in the language of Australian Aboriginals, that nation’s indigenous population. The band hoped and expected the album would be similarly retitled in every other country, honoring the people who had lived in each territory the longest. The scheme never came to fruition, and Waiata became the default name for the record. It was one of many compromises the band had to make that left them feeling disenchanted.

Split Enz were following up their biggest success to that point. The band’s previous album, True Colours, had topped the charts in New Zealand and Australia, and it had respectable showings elsewhere. In the U.S., it peaked at #40 on the Billboard album chart, and it’s centerpiece single, “I Got You,” had some success on commercial radio. Opportunities were lining up, including a spot as the opening act for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers following the release of Waiata. Presumably, the just needed the one song, hitting the ears just right, to push them over to mass appeal.

The chiming “History Never Repeats” was the obvious choice for a single, given its encapsulation of all of songwriter Neil Finn’s formidable skills as a pop craftsman. It’s not only the sense of introspection embedded in the first word of the title that made it a proper representation when Split Enz eventually needed a name for a “best of” release. The relaxed pop song “One Step Ahead,” and the zippy “Hard Act to Follow,” which sounds a little like Naked Eyes on uppers, are similarly rock solid examples of the way in which Finn, his brother Tim, and their cohorts could take the familiar blueprint of pop music and construction a finished product so clean and perfectly realized that others’ stabs at reinvention seemed almost foolish.

Elsewhere on the album, though, the band loses their way with their own iffy ambition. Some of the stretching is dandy, as is the case with the escalating post-disco goodness on “I Don’t Wanna Dance,” on which Split Enz sounds like an earthier New Order. But “Clumsy” to adopts a sort of Devo art pop vibe and it hangs on the band awkwardly.  “Ships” is like the product of a more rote version of XTC, and the yucky power ballad “Ghost Girl” is mostly kindly interpreted as a bad attempt at commercial crossover.

Waiata and its aftermath left the band with a litany of complaints. The album packaging fell short of their hopes, they hadn’t enjoyed their second-tier status on the tour with Petty, and things in the studio had been frustrating enough to inspire a split from longtime producer David Tickle. For their next album, Time and Tide, Split Enz were ready to push back against expectations.

 

crenshaw st

701. Marshall Crenshaw, Marshall Crenshaw (1982)

“I wanted to write hit singles,” Marshall Crenshaw told Jim Beviglia, as recounted in the book Playing Back the 80s: A Decade of Unstoppable Hits. “I was in love with the idea that hit singles were art. That was my medium, my platform, and that was really what I was going for with everything I did back then.”

Crenshaw first gained a foothold in the music business by providing “an incredible simulation” of another artist. Crenshaw was cast as John Lennon in Beatlemania, the theatrical production that set performers on stage impersonating the Fab Four. First an understudy to the original New York production, Crenshaw went on to play the role on the West Coast and then the touring company. It was during his many days in nights in hotel rooms waited to don John’s distinctive locks that Crenshaw started writing songs in earnest. Shortly after quitting the Beatles show, Crenshaw recorded a few for Crash Records, and lent a song called “Someday, Someway” to retro rock specialist Robert Gordon. Released as a single from 1981 album, Are You Gonna Be the One, “Someday, Someway” made it into the Billboard Hot 100 and was instrumental to Crenshaw signing with Warner Bros. Records.

“Someday, Someway” did even better when it was released as the lead single of Marshall Crenshaw, the singer-songwriter’s debut album. It nudged over into the Billboard Top 40 and settled into a long haul legacy as one of the signature songs of the era. There’s little doubt as to why. The cut is such a ideal distillation of all the charm and slyness and bright-eyed wonder of pop music — the art of the hit single which was Crenshaw’s aspiration — that it would have almost been understandable if the whole music biz had shut down upon its release, glumly convinced that the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song had been penned and performed, making any further attempts to reach such a peak futile. That’s ridiculous hyperbole, of course, but it sure does feel close to true when living within the track’s lean three minutes.

So much of Marshall Crenshaw is a fine echo of that sterling track. Other songs might not be as crisp and clean, but they reverberate with a familiar sound. The splendidly bittersweet breakup song “There She Goes Again,” snappy “Rockin’ Around in N.Y.C.,” spirited “Brand New Lover,” and soft rockabilly number “The Usual Thing” are all enticing. “Mary Anne” comes pretty dang close to pop perfection itself, and “Cynical Girl” brings a ringing energy to an atypical tale of pining for a romantic partner with some shrewdness to her character (“Well I’ll know right away by the look in her eye/ She harbors no illusions and she’s worldly-wise”).

Marshall Crenshaw received rave reviews, but the man whose name it bore was one of the less effusive fans. He felt the production was too sterile, a complaint that seems absurd until a listen to one of Crenshaw’s demo recordings offers corroborating evidence that’s hard to dispute.

 

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 — #708 to #705

aka studio

708. The Special AKA, In the Studio (1984)

Using the most straightforward explanation, In the Studio is the third album from the Specials. The fact that the band is billed as the Special AKA tells a significant story. This wasn’t the same outfit that topped the U.K. chart two times in the early nineteen-eighties and delivered seven straight Top 10 hits on the same tally of hots. In the Studio is the document of a band in disarray.

The troubles began when Terry Hall, Neville Staple, and Lynval Golding left the band to form Fun Boy Three. Jerry Dammers, the keyboardist and chief songwriter of the Specials, tried to cobble together a new lineup for the band, cycling through session musicians and members snatched from other bands. In all, Dammers and the rotating support cast spent about two years toiling away in fits and starts. It was apparently a bleak scene during sessions, leading Horace Panter, the Specials’ bassist and co-founder, to later observe the “atmosphere was unbearable.” He quit the band midway through recording process.

Despite these conflicts, In the Studio is a strong album, though miles away from the froth ska music with which the Specials built their fame. That is largely attributable to the new collaborators Dammers brought into his circle, since they were far more accustomed to jazz-influenced riffs than caffeinated Jamaican rhythms. Dammers was also clearly looking outside himself in shaping the lyrics, leading to highly politicized songs such as plaintive pleas “(Free) Nelson Mandela” and “Bright Lights,” the latter of which references the case of Colin Roach, a black man who died in police custody in 1983. Often, the Special AKA chose the most direct path to making their points, as on “Your Racist Friend,” which argues “If you have a racist friend/ Now is the time, now is the time/ For your friendship to end.”

There’s a remarkable fullness of thought in the sound of the individual tracks. “The Lonely Crowd”  jazz colliding with R&B, “Housebound” is flinty and experimental, and “Break Down the Door”  recaptures Stax soul sound, giving it a decidedly modern spin. None of this was what fans wanted, evidently. Except for “(Free) Nelson Mandela,” which benefited from its timeliness, none of the singles fared particularly well, and the album was the band’s lowest-charting effort to date.

Shortly after the release of In the Studio, Dammers dissolved the band, opting for other pursuits. The Specials’ name has been opportunistically employed for various nostalgia tours over the years, but Dammers hasn’t really been a part of the zombie versions of the band.

 

rank long

707. Rank and File, Lone Gone Dead (1984)

Lone Gone Dead is the sophomore full-length studio release from Rank and File, a band out of Austin, Texas that was fronted by Chip Kinman and Tony Kinman. Slotted into the emerging cowpunk scene, Rank and File were exhibited tendencies toward more straightforward Americana rock ‘n’ roll. They do ably cover the the Lefty Frizzell song “I’m an Old, Old Man” on the album, keeping some current running through the country music connection, but most of Lone Gone Dead sounds like the college rock version of what John Mellencamp was just starting to bang out.

There are still vestiges of the band’s shared punk roots, but mostly found in the layers of defiant attitude as on the homespun “Sound of the Rain,” which includes the simple, powerful lines “I see walls/ But these wall aren’t in my way.” There’s a popgun fun to “Saddest Girl in the World,” and “John Brown” finds them sounding like a cowpoke Nick Cave. In general, there’s a boisterous quality to the album, sometimes manifesting in unexpected ways. “Hot Wind,” for example, sounds like it could have served as the theme for a television Western had the genre remained a wholly viable genre into the mid-eighties.

The music is good, but the band had difficulty getting a foothold with broader audiences. There was only one more album, a self-titled effort for a new label, before Rank and File quit for good.

 

blanc happy

706. Blancmange, Happy Families (1982)

Blancmange started in 1979, plying their trade in London. Originally a trio, the group settled into a partnership between vocalist Neil Arthur and keyboardist Stephen Luscombe. The pair made intellectually potent pop music, vibrating with dance floor intensity and struck by a bracing certainty of purpose. Happy Families is the band’s debut full-length.

The album opens with the danceable fervor “I Can’t Explain,” and it keeps reverberating with splendid cuts such as the bright, booming “Living on the Ceiling” and the handsome drama of “Waves.” Some of the material is tightly tethered to the era in which is was made, as evidenced by “Cruel,” which is mild goth with a vibe that anticipates Depeche Mode’s “Master and Servant.” More often, the cuts have a bright inventiveness that make them sound perpetually contemporary. “Feel Me” isn’t far off from the jabbing insistence of the most recent LCD Soundsystem album. Occasionally, a track is novel enough that it could have beamed in from another reality altogether, as is the case with “Sad Day,” which is like the theme song for a remake of Knot’s Landing set in outer space.

Blancmange managed two more albums in the nineteen-eighties before announcing a split in 1986. A reunion happened fifteen years later, and it included a re-recording of this debut album, titled Happy Families Too…

 

bush whole

705. Kate Bush, The Whole Story (1986)

Kate Bush had creating music from broad public consumption for nearly ten years when she released the “best of” collection The Whole Story. She was very well known at home in the U.K., where her 1978 debut single, “Wuthering Heights,” spent four weeks atop the chart, making her the first female artist to hit that pinnacle with a song she wrote herself. She was eighteen years old when she wrote the song, and her personal odometer had only ticked ahead one year when she hit the chart peak. Although she never quite reached those heights again, she’s remained a consistent commercial force in the U.K., notching seven Top 10 hits over the years, including as recently as 2012. It made sense for her to pull together a collection of peak performers for that market.

In the U.S., she was more of an unknown quantity, leading Bush to joke that most record-buyers probably viewed The Whole Story as her debut album. There was a little exaggeration to that statement given that “Running Up That Hill” pushed into the Billboard Top 40 in 1985, but she likely wasn’t that far off. For some audiences, The Whole Story was merely a shortcut to fill a lamented hole in a collection. For U.S. audiences, it was a primer on a vivaciously inventive iconoclast who was never likely to crack a commercial landscape more inclined toward easily digestible pop.

Bush recorded a new vocal for “Wuthering Heights,” but The Whole Story otherwise pulls morsels straight from her earlier albums, giving listeners — and college radio programmers — the convenience of the pure beauty of “The Man with the Child in His Eyes,” the brilliant churn and charge of “Hounds of Love,” and the tightly controlled wildness of “Sat in Your Lap” all in one place. “Experiment IV,” the album’s sole new track, is less successful, skewing uncomfortably close to filler on a concept album. Otherwise, The Whole Story is a gift, providing a valuable overview of an artist whose creativity is vast and dizzying.

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