College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 1

1 who

1. The Who, Who Are You

Let’s start with the bloke seated in the chair there, the one turned around backwards with the instructional message “NOT TO BE TAKEN AWAY” stenciled on it. Keith John Moon celebrated his thirty-second birthday five days after the release of Who Are You. Fifteen days after that he was dead, one of the least surprising casualties of rock ‘n’ roll. He was living in a flat owned by Harry Nilsson that just so happened to be the place Cass Elliot died four years earlier. In Pete Townshend’s memoir, he noted that he’d told Nilsson not to worry about any sort of bad luck that might befall Moon while staying in an abode with such a history. “Lightning wouldn’t strike the same place twice,” Townshend insisted. Moon was on a regimen of Heminevrin, intended to combat the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal while he tried to get sober. He took thirty-two tablets on the evening of September 6th, 1978. Overdose was listed as the cause of death.

If it’s not really the Who without Moon–and that vicious drum-punishing beat provides a significant portion of the band’s power–then Who Are You can be viewed as the final album by the band, no matter how many other releases bear their name. If so, it makes for a fascinating finale. For one thing, the sound of the band is quite different. After years of building up the muscle of rock ‘n’ roll with a near legendary devotion to loudness and garage band viciousness, the Who embraced electronic sounds to a degree unprecedented for them. The album is full of synths and other digital effects, often swirling around in bizarrely invigorating combinations. It’s easy to chalk up such experimentation in this era as a direct result of the flaring success of disco, but Townshend instead claimed he was trying to meld punk rock and progressive rock into a singular sound. Some might say that’s the exact equation to create New Wave.

The album opens with a jolt. “New Song” springs to life like a laser gun powering up. Roger Daltrey’s typical virile rock god vocals rest unfamiliarly (or, in a less charitable description, awkwardly) atop a pinging, restless electric melody. Keyboard flourishes simulate a pounding rain and the enveloping sound of thunder. Townshend and his cohorts are trying out music as a fully evocative soundscape, exactly the sort of approach that could be expected from creators who’s established the notion of trying to bend the simple station-to-station path of rock ‘n’ roll albums to a more cohesive whole. Many of the songs are shards of Townshend’s fabled Lifehouse project, the follow-up to Tommy that he took many swings and misses at over the years. That’s interesting when it leads to the the extreme busyness and elusive message of “Sister Disco” or the oddball anxiety of “Guitar and Pen.” It’s less satisfying when the band veers towards borderline pretension, as with the syrupy strings of “Love is Coming Down.” Still, Townshend was clearly interested in trying something new, moving his music forward in a way that was attuned with the modern times instead of merely copying trends. That’s more than could be said about many of his contemporaries.

Even the album closing title cut, the one track from this album that entered into the Who’s classic rock canon (and the song that has maybe made Townshend more money than any of his compositions by virtue of its appearance in fourteen seasons’ worth of CSI: Crime Scene Investigations opening credits), is full of easily overlooked little electronic flourishes. All of it gives the song a different dynamic, sounding like a familiar Who song filtered through an entirely different and fresh sensibility. It’s not quite at the level of full-fledged reinvention, but it does have the feel of shrewd, strategic forward progress. The Who was a band that belonged to rock fans from a generation earlier than the college deejays who were playing Who Are You in 1978. But the album makes a decent argument that the Who merited attention from the younger kids, too.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly
–4: Living in the USA
–3: Tormato
–2: Wavelength

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 2

2. Van Morrison, Wavelength

I saw Van Morrison play live once, as the capper to a day-long festival of mostly Irish artists sponsored, of course, by Guinness. This was towards the end of the nineties, so Morrison was well past the point that he new music was garnering anything but the most meager attention, critically and especially commercially. It also meant he was safely an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll, someone who could justifiably be called a legend. He was strikingly disengaged in some respects, coming to the microphone in between extended smoke breaks backstage and belting out his songs as a tight band wailed behind him. And yet he was fantastic, gifted with the kind of presence, certainty, and soulful singing voice that made every song into a powerhouse, even as he seemed almost perturbed by the need to do his job.

The version of Morrison on saw on that stage matches up nicely with the version I hear on his 1978 album, Wavelength. There’s a drabness to it, but also an undeniable authority. He performs like a guy who knows he doesn’t have to try all that hard to still be distinctive, arguably even better than just about everyone else plying the musical trade at the time. Hell, he’s even taking a smoke break on the album cover.

While not one of the albums from his vast career that’s still widely celebrated today, Wavelength was a significant hit for Morrison. Indeed, it was his biggest hit to that point, selling its way to a gold record certification with weeks, far faster than any of his other efforts. And the title cut brought him within a hair’s breadth (okay, two spots) of his first Billboard Top 40 hit since 1971’s “Wild Night.” In some respects, it’s not all that surprising. The record seems targeted at a broader audience with slick production, more direct songwriting, and little acquiescences to the popular music of the time, such as the disco-lite back-up singers who pop up across the two sides. This might stem in part from Morrison trying to make up for lost time. After his 1974 album Veedon Fleece, he’d taken a three year break from recording, an absolutely lifetime in the nineteen-seventies, when artists were expected to churn out a new album roughly every year. When his comeback record, A Period of Transition, was tepidly received, there may have been some added pressure to reassert himself as a viable commercial artist.

It’s a hit or miss affair, with a few more songs that can be slotted into the latter category. “Natalia” is a prime example of Morrison seeming to reach out to radio, while album closer “Take It Where You Find It” is clearly intended to play as one of Morrison’s long, beautiful soul workouts, only to wind up as a dull slog as it stretches on for nearly nine minutes. It’s still Morrison, though, which means there are pleasures to be had, embedded in each and every song. It surely helps that Morrison is unique in all of rock ‘n’ roll history for his ability to spin lyrics like “Listen to the music to music inside/ Can’t you hear what it says to you” (in the song “Lifetimes”) away from their inherent triteness towards something approaching profundity. The album’s peak is probably “Santa Fe/Beautiful Obsession,” which marks the first time Morrison shared a songwriting credit on an an album, as the first song on the melded track was penned with Jackie De Shannon. Perhaps tellingly, both “Santa Fe” and “Beautiful Obsession” were originally written in the early seventies, well before the other material on the record.

His status as a significant performer solidly reestablished, Morrison started to test those boundaries, first by crafting songs with more over religious themes on follow-up album Into the Music and then the free jazz meanderings of his first album of the nineteen-eighties, the now largely forgotten Common One. Then it was time for the MTV era to push through the soil. An artist as churlish as Morrison had no chance in that environment. It was time to start the long process of easing into venerable music biz survivor status.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly
–4: Living in the USA
–3: Tormato

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 3

3. Yes, Tormato

The very first lyrics heard on the Yes album Tormato are “In the fountains of the universe: Set time in accord/ Sits the boychild Solomon: Every turning round and round,” sung over electronic trilling that sounds heavily fussed over. The song in question, “Future Times,” melds seamlessly (maybe imperceptibly) into the song “Rejoice,” which announces, “Rejoice forward out this feeling/ Ten true summers long/ We go round and round and round and round/ Until we pick it up again.” All of this is delivered without a hint of irony. Instead, there’s clear conviction in the profundity of the song, which I can admit is admirable in its own way. It is not, however, my kind of music, and those lyrics paired with that music establishes that with remarkable speed.

To allow that maybe I’m not entirely operating from a place of predetermined bias, Tormato is not exactly a favorite album of devoted Yes fans either. This was a band celebrated from their epic song workouts, often stretching across the entire side of an album. Tormato is filled with comparatively concise songs, with only one of the eight tracks clocking in at over seven minutes. For some bands, that might be evidence of greater focus. For Yes, the opposite is probably true: shorter runtimes are likely to me they were giving up on songs before they had totally worked them out. More problematically, the production is infamously bad on the record, evidently the result of longtime producer Eddie Offord leaving midway through the process of making the album and his replacements (the band and Brian Lane are officially co-credited as the album’s producers) misinterpreting how Offord had recorded the material. I’m not entirely convinced that a production snafu is the primary reason songs such as “Madrigal” and “Arriving UFO” are so painfully dopey.

Even the band wasn’t so happy. For one, they didn’t care for the cover art that was provided by seventies rock design superstar Hipgnosis. The eventual official cover featured a tomato that had been smashed against the original commission, reportedly the actual review of a band member. (The album title was changed from Yes Tor to Tormato to better coincide with the image.) That was a minor snit compared with the conflicts on the way. Within a few months of the September 1978 release of Tormato, both lead singer Jon Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakemen had quite the band, the former staying off the roster until into the nineteen-nineties. Anderson was back sooner, returning to the fold in time to help his bandmates shave off the prog trappings to better appeal to the booming MTV audience, which in turn brought them their biggest U.S. hits by far. I’m sure they were hit with “sell out” charges by the faithful, but that material, while still not great, sounds a lot better to me. It’s certainly better than anything on Tormato. Apparently, there are a lot of fans who would agree with that assessment.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly
–4: Living in the USA

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 4

4. Linda Ronstadt, Living in the USA

In 1978, Linda Ronstadt was about as big as a rock ‘n’ roll performer could get, though most of the superlatives that got flung around centered on her gender. After a slightly belated breakthrough with her fifth studio album, Heart Like a Wheel, Ronstadt started stacking up accomplishments. She became the first solo female to have three straight million-selling albums when her 1976 release Hasten Down the Wind crossed that tally (she eventually could claim nine straight Platinum-certified albums). The 1977 album Simple Dreams spent five weeks atop the Billboard album chart, holding the distinction of knocking Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours from the perch, ending its record-setting four month run there. (Well, ending isn’t entirely right since Rumours was back in the #1 position a couple months later.) Simple Dreams reportedly sold over three-and-a-half million copies in the span of less than a year. Again, that was a record for a female artist. It was that enormous hit record that Ronstadt was officially following up with Living in the USA, released almost exactly one year later, in September of 1978. Continuing her string of notable accomplishments, it was the first album to ever ship Double Platinum, some two million copies pressed and sent out before even a single disc had been sold.

Living in the USA took its title from a recurring lyric in Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.,” which Ronstadt covered for the album’s opening track and lead single. While a Top 40 hit, her ninth since her career started blazing with the chart-topping “You’re No Good,” the track exposes the chief creative shortcoming of Ronstadt’s album. Ronstadt was first and foremost a skilled interpreter of other people’s songs, essentially an ace covers act. There’s no shame in that. Many of his hits may have been penned just for him, but the same can be said of Elvis Presley (who, incidentally, Ronstadt knocked out of the top spot on the country albums chart with Living in the U.S.A., an especially impressive feat given that it happened just a few months after the King’s death, when instant nostalgia was giving him a mighty commercial boost). The problem was that Ronstadt’s tepid take on Berry’s rocker suggested she was running low on inspiration, possibly a result of releasing new music as a very steady clip to meet the huge demand of her swelling fan base.

Ronstadt is at her best when a song seems to surprise her a little bit, pulling out different dynamics in her melodic, emotive vocals. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is more likely to occur on Living in the USA with the more unfamiliar songs, such as “All That You Dream,” which is smooth but propulsive, effectively showcasing Ronstadt’s voice as she goes from a gently keening croon down to the occasional growl. Then there’s Warren Zevon’s offering to the record, almost a given at this point in Ronstadt’s discography thanks to her sterling turns with his songwriting previously. “Mohammed’s Radio” demonstrates exactly why Ronstadt was the ideal singer of Zevon’s songs, even better than the man himself. His cynicism brings out her innate, often untapped toughness, and her velvety voice reveals the loveliness of his melodies and verbal phrasings, often concealed by his default croaky, languid delivery. (And man alive, does “Midnight Radio,” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, ever owe something to this particular track.) It’s performances like these that prove there was real artistry to what Ronstadt was doing.

Ronstadt made it to the cover of Time magazine the previous year, accompanied by the descriptor “Torchy Rock.” That assessment is spot-on, for good and ill. Ronstadt would eventually give in to that instinct altogether, but at the height of her popularity she was still trying to bridge all the different audiences that were snatching up her music, sometimes resulting in material that was tragically bloodless. That quality is exemplified by her take on Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” released by him only one year earlier. She takes a song full of emotional danger and wounded romanticism and turns it into something utterly vanilla. The best that can be said is that it’s pretty in an unassuming way. If Talking Heads, Blondie, and their kindred spirits were inventing new wave, Ronstadt was doing the same for adult contemporary. Costello hated her version of the song and didn’t mind telling anyone who’d listen (because he’s Elvis Costello and he’s always happen to vent his most vicious opinions). He liked the money all those record sales brought him, though. When Ronstadt’s management asked him for songs he thought might be better suited to Ronstadt, he sent along a batch, three of which made it onto her next album. He hated those, too. But I’ll bet he liked the size of the checks once again.

Ronstadt just kept selling records. It’s easy to look back at her career now and scoff. The hits that endure sound like pure filler, desperately dated in their laid back seventies cheer. Digging deeper doesn’t necessarily yield material that’s revelatory, but it does start to showcase someone who was often damn good at what she was trying to do. She was a powerful singer not because of her ability to hit big, brassy notes, but because of the way she could inhabit a song. She was popular for a reason, and that reason is best named with a single word: talent. That shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out
–5: Dog & Butterfly

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 5

5. Heart, Dog & Butterfly

Dog & Butterfly was the second Heart album released in 1978. Sort of.

The band that famously features the Wilson sisters, lead singer Ann and lead guitarist Nancy, released their debut album on Mushroom Records in 1976. In short order, the group decided that they wanted to leave the label, in large part because they were angered by the salacious approach being taken in the marketing of their music. Heart made the move to Portrait, a new subsidiary of Columbia Records, but the folks at Mushroom didn’t actually feel like the band had the right to instigate the change. At roughly the same time Heart released their Portrait debut, Little Queen, in 1977, Mushroom cobbled together incomplete recordings the band left behind and dropped an album called Magazine on the market, even acknowledging the mess on the back cover with a disclaimer that read, “Mushroom Records regrets that a contractual dispute has made it necessary to complete this record without the cooperation or endorsement of the group Heart, who have expressly disclaimed artistic involvement in completing this record. We did not feel that a contractual dispute should prevent the public from hearing and enjoying these incredible tunes and recordings.”

Both labels argued that the other had no right to release music from Heart. The dispute made it all the way into the courtroom, where it was ordered that Mushroom had to recall the album, but that Heart also owed the label another record. They chose to go back and finish Magazine, remixing the recordings and adding some new material. The Heart-approved version of the album was officially released in April of 1978.

Six months later, Heart was out with another album, this their first for Portrait with no background business wrangling going on. Entitled Dog & Butterfly, it was intended to show different sides of the band, with the first side, “Dog,” containing hard rock songs, and the flip, “Butterfly,” mostly comprised of ballads (or power ballads anyway). Like their previous releases, Dog & Butterfly was a major success, yielding two Top 40 singles and earning a double platinum certification. It is a record deeply of its time, perfectly suited for all the album rock radio cropping up on the FM dial. It also sounds really dated now, with even the title cut, one of the band’s standards, unmistakably a product of the decade in which it was spawned.

Dog & Butterfly represented the beginning of the end of the early success of Heart. Although their next album, the unfortunately-titled Bebe le Strange, actually charted higher than any of its predecessors, it was also the first release from the sisters that didn’t make it to platinum sales. It was even more dire as the pushed into the eighties, at least until they reinvented themselves for the MTV era with their 1986 self-titled LP. Ridiculously glammed-up in videos that took great care to showcase Nancy Wilson’s frizzed up hair and bustiers, Heart had hits that well exceeded anything they’d experienced before. The older music lived on, though, giving them a foundation of familiar favorites to break out for audiences, and even recycle in the most unlikely places.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time
–6: Bursting Out

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 6

6. Jethro Tull, Bursting Out

Look. It’s Jethro Tull, the band that brought flute solos into rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a double live album, because it’s the nineteen-seventies and double live albums were the standard filler on the discography of the bigger bands. If you want to hear it, the whole damn thing is online. Every once in a while in these countdowns, I give myself a pass. I’m giving myself a pass.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
–7: Comes a Time

College Countdown, The First CMJ Album Chart, 7

7. Neil Young, Comes a Time

Comes a Time, released in October of 1978, was the ninth solo release credited to Neil Young. It was at once a departure and a return to form. After a batch of prickly, complex, critically lauded albums through the middle part of the decade, which were largely met with tepid sales, Young returned to the sparse, folk-inflected style that represented his strongest commercial prospects. Harvest, released in 1972, had topped the charts on its way to earning multi-platinum sales, and Comes a Time is obviously its kindred spirit, to the point that it comes across as a quintessential Young release as surely as the earlier hit record. Accordingly, it was his first release to make it into the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart since Harvest. In a way, it cemented a truism of Young’s career. No matter how many stylistic digressions he made from album to album, he could always come back to placing his wavering voice atop a plaintive acoustic guitar and satisfy a strong subset of his fandom.

Even so, the original conception of Comes a Time wasn’t necessarily an automatic cause for celebration for Young’s label, Reprise. Perhaps attuned to the fact that the top of album charts that in 1972 was the home to the likes of Carole King, Don McLean, and was six years later dominated by a very different sort of record, the label asked Young to beef up some of the songs. To that end, he brought in his regular backing band, Crazy Horse, to play on “Look Out for My Love” and “Lotta Love.” Neither of them exactly turned into a scorcher with the supplementary instrumentation. The latter track was even arguably overshadowed by the version Nicolette Larson released as a single almost exactly one month after Young’s album hit stores. (Larson also provided backing vocals on much of Comes a Time.) While Young didn’t get much traction with his two singles from the album, Larson managed to make it into Billboard‘s Top 10 with his song.

Young was closing in on his thirty-third birthday when Comes a Time was released, but he already sounds like an old man. Songs like album opener “Goin’ Back” and “Peace of Mind” are heavy with melancholic reminiscence, better suited to a guy who’s, well, the age Young is now. Of course, that’s been part of his charm from the get-go, that he arrived on the scene as a grizzled songwriting soul. It winds up being another way Comes a Time just makes sense and stands as a vital touchstone in the pantheon of Young’s wildly wavering career. No matter where he went musically (and his next album would be the raw and dark Rust Never Sleeps), this familiar weary journeyman was always in there somewhere.

Previously…
An Introduction
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls
–18: Mr. Gone
–17: Stage
–16: Pieces of Eight
–15: Bloody Tourists
–14: Along the Red Ledge
–13: The Bride Stripped Bare
–12: On the Edge
–11: Parallel Lines
–10: More Songs About Buildings and Food
–9: Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!
–8: Twin Sons of Different Mothers