College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 8

8. Screaming Trees, Invisible Lantern

When I was flipping through albums on the new releases shelf in my college radio station twenty-six years ago, the potential longevity of the artists before me was hardly at the forefront of my mind. If at that point I cast backward the same span of time, for example, Elvis Presley was still the dominant artist, and the likes of Joey Dee and the Starliters and Bobby Vinton were topping the charts. In short, it seemed like ancient history in the curation of the music wing in the pop culture museum. Even if I did consider who had staying power among those who delivered favored releases that fall, I highly doubt I would have pointed to Screaming Trees, even though I thought the album in question, Invisible Lantern, was first-rate. The band may have only made it another decade or so, but their frontman, Mark Lanegan, arguably stands with only Tom Waits as a performer still creating new work that the critics feel the need to grapple with. Yes, there are other groups and performers that are still going concerns and fully capable of causing ripples within the music press, but Lanegan gets his attention not with stunts or controversy but with considerations of his enduring artistry.

Invisible Lantern was the third full-length from Screaming Trees. Like their prior effort, Even If and Especially When, it was on SST Records, guaranteeing it a certain amount of attention and even reverence from those college radio programmers who saw Greg Ginn’s Southern California label as a dependable arbiter of all that was cool and tough but also smartly accessible within the evolving punk scene. On Invisible Lantern, Screaming Trees absolutely has a punk edge, but like a lot of their label-mates, they were applying it to slightly different forms of music. Listening to the album now, it’s striking how steeped it in the sort of sturdy, pummeling songcraft that was the hallmark of bands with a permanent place on classic rock radio playlists. The fuzzy guitar riff of album opener “Ivy” calls back to any one of the dozens of garage rock bands that emerged in the late nineteen-sixties, and “Lines & Circles” melds a version of the Kinks’ bruising nihilism (“They’re going places I’ve never been/ Saying words I’ve never said/ Thoughts of logic at once stopped dead/ Moving up all around my head”) with the pile driving, glossed-out metal of the Cult. Little tinges of psychedelia crop up here and there (as on “She Knows”), and overall there’s a sense that the strongest songs belong pressed onto musty old 45s (“Direction of the Sun”).

Perhaps predictably, Lanegan is the band’s not-so-secret weapon. His deep, emotive baritone deliver comes across with a woozy sort of swagger, like a crooner emerging from a ill-fated pilgrimage across the tundra, weary but still singing. That’s heard best on the songs that find the band slowing down a bit, such as the Doors-styled grandiosity of “Grey Diamond Desert” (“I never thought the night would find me here/ Black raindrops washed away with drunken tears”) or the swinging groove of the title cut. His voice reverberates with the same sort of inherent theatricality that sustains Nick Cave. Like the Australian iconoclast, Lanegan has long understood how to tilt his songs to that strength. Given the added perspective of a bevy of other Lanegan releases in the intervening years, I can hear the successful employment of that strategy on Invisible Lantern. Back then, I’m pretty sure I mostly played the album because I thought it kicked ass (that was the common denominator description of all SST releases). Now I hear a more complex statement of intent, one that makes it clear exactly why Lanegan has lasted.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 9

9. Tom Waits, Big Time

By now, Tom Waits is so solidly ensconced in the canon of cool music-makers that it can be difficult to remember that the man is something of an acquired taste. I once asked a deejay to play a half-hour straight of Waits’s music on his birthday. She never forgave me. Throughout her remaining tenure at the station, at entirely unpredictable times, she reminded me of how miserable she was during that thirty minutes. Big Time, the first proper live album released by Waits, is fittingly a useful primer on everything that makes the performer beloved to many and agonizing to others. His crumpled poetry and weaving balladeer persona are represented marvelously across the album, and just enough tracks are trying in their crunched gravel galumphing to ratify the shared decision of the unconverted. In other words, it does what it intends to do: provides an overview of Waits some fifteen years into his career and a further strong statement on where he stood at that moment, following three straight revered albums with Swordfishtrombones (1983), Rain Dogs (1985), and Frank’s Wild Years (1987).

The album gets underway in nearly ideal fashion, with a romping version of “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six.” It exemplifies the haunted, hallucinatory circus vibe of Waits’s music at the time, the whole song sounding like it emanates from a rusty calliope that’s thrown a few springs. Recorded at two West Coast dates on the tour promoting Frank’s Wild Years, Waits is a creaking dervish of gloomy, theatrical lunacy. He’s a bourbon bottle bard, but he’s also an unmistakable showman. As downbeat as a lot of his music is — while also infused with a battered romanticism — the sensation that comes across most clearly across Big Time is a joy in sharing his gifts, undoubtedly bolstered by a certainty that he was in a stretch that could be viewed as a creative prime. That can occasionally undermine individual songs (“Cold Cold Ground” loses some of the poignant yearning of the original version, found on Frank’s Wild Years), but overall the impression is of an artist in command of his art, which is somewhat at odds with his disheveled image. That schism between the two is one of things that adds a level of fascination beyond what is usually present on the drab tour documents that are live albums.

Still, Big Time is a live album, and it comes with all the inherent flaws that are typical of the form. The album is association with a film of the same name that fills in some of Waits’s charisma which doesn’t fully translate onto record. It’s nice to hear the effusive sputter of “Way Down in the Hole” (on record, Waits introduces it by saying, “I feel as though we should move right into the religious material”) or to get a version of “Rain Dogs” that sounds more than ever before like it was written to specifically accompany a jubilant act of carnival arson. It’s better to see it, too. It becomes truer and more pointed. On record, it’s an echo, more of a memento than an album as artistic statement. Big Time does serve as a nice cap on a meaningful portion of Waits’s career. Another three years passed before his next studio album. That release, Bone Machine, started a whole new era for the artist, one in which the apparent influence of his wife, Kathleen Brennan (now credited as a co-writer on most songs), added extra flint dimensions to the music. Big Time celebrates an important portion of Waits’s career. It also, perhaps unwittingly, sets it out to sea on an ice floe. Compelling changes were on the way.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 10

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10. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, Nothing Wrong

Nearly two years ago, my old online home away from home, Spectrum Culture, assembled a small panel of writers and music critics to hash out a list of the 13 Best Goth Albums of All Time. Though I was well to the side of that fervent tribe of music fandom, I did the best I could to participate the in process, typically relying on my distant memories of what member of the heavy black eyeliner set favored back in my high school and college days (not that I knew many kids like that in milquetoast Wisconsin). I think we came with a good list, although I regret that a bundle of other responsibilities prevented me from doing some additional research and prep before engaging in the discussion that brought us to our nominees, if only because then I might have been reminded earlier of the significant pleasures of Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. They should have been contenders.

Formed in Leeds, England in 1981, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry sounds pretty much exactly the way any seasoned music fan might expect from a group springing to life when the aftershocks of Ian Curtis’s suicide were still rattling the hearts and amps of British cool kids. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry’s music has some of the buzz and thrust of Joy Division’s founding brand of post-punk while also ratcheting up the gloom to the level of outrageous beauty. At the same time, there was a tunefulness to the music, a tenderly attentive sense of songcraft, that prevented Red Lorry Yellow Lorry from descending into the accidental self-parody that afflicted so many similar groups. (Or at least usually prevented it. None of the bands that got anywhere near goth were totally immune.) Plus, they were a little tougher than many of their contemporaries, holding on to the punk part of post-punk a little longer. They usually batted away comparisons to Joy Division by declaring Wire to be more of an influence, a distinction that is apparent on any close listen to the music. For a kid like me, still a musical novice when I arrived at the radio station my first year of college, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry was an ideal gateway to the operatic grimness of goth that I probably found a little off-putting and unsettling at time time.

Nothing Wrong, the third full-length from the Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, arrived in 1988, just in time for the college kids coming back to school with a need for a dose of bleak poetry. It was their first album since signing to the Beggars Banquet sub-label Situation Two, appropriately putting them in the same stable of artists as Fields of the Nephilim. Presumably, this would be a label well-equipped to help connect the band with their biggest possible audience, commercial success that never really came to pass. Nothing Wrong is a fine example of the band’s strengths, led off by the pulsating title cut, awash in layers of sound and punctured by the spoke-sung lyrics of Chris Reed, oddly thrilling in their characteristic pessimism (“The world around is dragging down on me/ If you’re feeling sad, full of shame/ You better find someone to blame”). From there, the biggest problem with Nothing Wrong is also somewhat characteristic of goth music: a consistency of sound that can become a little numbing. Track after track has the same slow burn anguish and romanticized darkness. It sounds good, but Nothing Wrong can threaten to fade into the background, which might explain the randomly interspersed audio excerpts from the BBC documentary Testament to the Bushmen (much of the packaging and promotion surrounding the album is similarly drawn from that program). None of the clips illuminate the artistic intent behind the record, but at least they help break things up.

There are of course some tracks that stand out, such as “The Rise,” which plays like a peppier version of Love and Rockets’ later “So Alive,” and the intoxicating swirl of instrumental “Sayonara.” There’s also the charging train of “She Said,” (“There’s a space inside, where I like to hide/ There’s a place I dream to forget the lies”) which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds records, which is about as high of compliment as I can pay to music in this ravaged vein. Even when the band is seemingly goofing around without much purpose, as with the wispy afterthought cover of Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Time is Tight” that closes the album, it’s at least somewhat interesting. The music can sometimes be indistinguishable from other Red Lorry Yellow Lorry material. Thankfully, that’s not the same as being dull.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry formally broke up in 1991 (after one more album, 1991’s Blasting Off). Truth is, it was mostly an outlet for Reed, anyway. He was the only band member there from beginning to end, with arguably only guitarist Dave Wolfenden able to claim significant collaborative contributions to the songwriting during his tenure. Reed revived the name in 2004, with new music and some touring, but Red Lorry Yellow Lorry largely remain figures from the past, available to those with long memories or a willingness to do a little digging. Too bad my own memory was faulty a couple years back. Considers this my personal addendum to Spectrum Culture list I helped build.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 11

11. U2, Rattle and Hum

The swirling stars have barely settled into place above the snowy mountain peak in the Paramount logo before Bono announces, “This song…Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” In no time at all, U2 is positioned as saviors and protectors of no less a band than the Beatles, and by extension maybe all of music itself. They are collectively the Robin Hood of rock ‘n’ roll, bringing the purity of intent and message back to their chosen form of artistic expression, fighting the good fight against oppressive forces. Elsewhere on the double album soundtrack and companion piece to Rattle and Hum, they take aim at heartless capitalism, televangelists, South African apartheid, and acid rain. Indeed, the band is in such a fighting mood that they shape one whole song to be (most notably, anyway) an attack on Albert Goldman’s controversial biography of John Lennon, then so notorious that it was even fodder for Saturday Night Live. This is U2, then, at their most grandiose and righteous, puffed up by the phenomenal success of The Joshua Tree and stretched to the length of a movie screen. It is also when U2 was still a damn good band. That makes all the difference.

Bono the social justice crusader may be in full evidence on Rattle and Hum, but the main thesis of the album is a celebration of the extended richness of American music traditions. Viewed less charitably, the album plays like U2’s inelegant attempt to wedge themselves in among the greats, exemplified by them covering Bob Dylan and writing near-pastiche songs suited for guest appearance by Dylan and B.B. King. They record in Memphis’s Sun Studios and invoke Billie Holiday. There’s undoubtedly earnestness to the spiritual quest to the soul of American music (if there’s one thing U2 is never lacking, it’s earnestness). There’s also a thick fog of beaming self-congratulation that sets the band continually stumbling on the not-so-fine line between tribute and appropriation. Their take on “All Along the Watchtower” is more indebted to the Jimi Hendrix version than the original, which would presumably be acknowledgement enough of the master guitarist for most. Including a snippet of one of Hendrix’s performances of “The Star Spangled Banner” as a separate track on the last side of Rattle and Hum does start to feel like a greedy snatch at transferred legend.

By any reasonable, evaluative measure the album Rattle and Hum is a mess. To a large degree that’s because the underlying purpose of the album is unclear. It’s sort of a soundtrack, but a huge number of songs in the movie don’t make their way to the record (I had a friend in college who had his own cassette-version of Rattle and Hum that he’d dubbed from a VHS copy of the film — it was far more satisfying of a listen). About half of it was brand new music, studio recordings presided over by Jimmy Iovine, who was easily the hottest producer at the time. There was enough freshly recorded material that it could reasonably be considered the proper follow-up to The Joshua Tree. But then the other half was largely live recordings, all captured during the tour that followed The Joshua Tree, as the band blew up to an astonishing degree. Further complicating matters, most of the new music seemed slightly out of step with what U2 had created previously. Lead single “Desire” was a big hit for the band (topped the Billboard Album Rock and Modern Rock charts and climbing all the way to #3 on the Hot 100), but it was decried by some of the faithful for its mild glammy, disco-ish underpinnings. This wasn’t what the band that made rock ‘n’ roll sound like a trip to church was supposed to sound like. Already well-trained in my first semester in college radio, I was quick to decry it as sell-out material, plenty pleased when its rapid ascension up the popular charts meant a red dot indicating “no play” was affixed next to it on our station’s copy (we had a strict policy against any track that has crossed into the Billboard Top 40, a prohibition that lasted at least two years). Now it’s one of my favorite U2 singles, invested with a liveliness and joy that’s missing from too much of the band’s work.

The messiness of Rattle and Hum is now one of the things I love best about the album. Listening back to it now, it truly seems like a release from a band that was knocked back on its heels, totally unprepared for the level of global fame they’d just achieved. A band that had previously been so prepared to make a high-impact statement with every last song now seemed to have a little bout with cottonmouth. To a degree, the album is the sound of a band trying to rediscover itself There was still an undeniable level of pretension there (seen most clearly in the film, filled with scenes of the band members visiting memorials and other quasi-sacred sites in somber black and white), but it is undercut by the freedom of exploration. Somewhere in the midst of the process that resulted in this album, U2’s ability to make any new music without extremely high, downright stultifying expectations was demolished as assuredly as if it had been hit straight on by a bulldozer. U2 had come a long way from a batch of Irish boys who ached to sound like Joy Division. They were now a global enterprise, suddenly so firmly established in pop culture that even their very best new songs flirted with self-parody. In that context, Rattle and Hum is the last gasp of the who they once were: a band that believed in the simplicity of three chords and the truth. I (and many, many others) take shots at U2 for their agonizing self-importance, but humility was no longer a viable option for them by the late nineteen-eighties. For better and worse, the overstatement of Rattle and Hum was their new default artistic route.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 12

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12. Mission of Burma, Forget

Among the things that characterize the typical college radio experience for a student programmer, it’s possible that the most frustrating is a melancholy longing for the music that was released sometime in the five to ten years before they set foot in the station. It’s not merely the perpetual dissatisfaction of youth that leads to this sullen impression. Music, particularly highly influential music, can take some time to gestate, meaning the best older records are automatically elevated in the mind’s assessment. There weren’t that many college radio stations playing, say, Nirvana’s Bleach when it was nestled in rotations as a new release, but a few years later all of the disciples of the pre-Nevermind effort from Seattle’s finest could wax poetically about how great it would have been to introduce it to their eager listeners. If an artist had the added cachet of a limited recording output, with the implication that they ended before their time was truly up, all the better.

Mission of Burma released exactly one full-length album during their brief initial existence. Vs. is widely considered a powerhouse classic of post-punk, suffused with an embrace of unpredictable sonics that held the promise of all the places that music might yet go. Even still, its importance trails that of the band’s debut single, the thrilling “Academy Fight Song,” and their first EP, the latter because it contains “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver,” a song that requires inclusion in any discussion of the all-time greats. The band didn’t last long after the release of Vs., in large part because the punishing volume of their live shows had already taken a physical toll, leaving lead guitarist Roger Miller with a severe case of tinnitus. Though they were officially done as a going concern in 1983, the band’s afterlife was robust. Before reforming some twenty years later (with the surprisingly strong ONoffON), Mission of Burma was the subject of no fewer than six releases, comprised standard “best of” collections, live albums, and assemblages of spare bits. Six releases across two decades doesn’t seem like much, I suppose, but it was effectively triple the band’s original output.

Officially, Rockpool lists our entry on the chart as Forget. I’m a little suspicious about that. Every source I can find, including those that are a little more reputable than the foggy wilds of web-based databases, lists Forget as a 1987 release, making it fairly unlikely that it survived on the charts for a full year or more or was ignored until the fall of 1988, when student programmers finally glommed onto it with collective urgency. I think it’s at least possible that the album actually charting in November 1988 was a self-titled comp on Rykodisc that represented one of the earliest attempts to make the band’s most famed material available on compact disc. That simple fact along could have been enough to make student deejays gravitate to it, in the same way that the Joy Division collection was getting ample attention. (Inconceivable as it may be now, CDs were still a novelty and a technological marvel in the fall of 1988, with radio stations announcing that all their music was played from that audio source as a significant selling point.) Then again, it’s certainly possible that the retrospective dating of Forget is incorrect or even that Taang! Records gave the collection a new push or an informal rerelease to capitalize on the interest that Mission of Burma surely generated.

Like a lot of such flotsam and jetsam collections, Forget is more interesting for what insights it might hold about the band’s creative process than it is as its own satisfying record. Largely made up of demos and rough passes at songs, the album is potentially revelatory for the most devoted Mission of Burma scholars in giving an aural sampling of the material that the bandmates decidedly, collectively or separately, simply wasn’t worth pursuing to a finished, polished product. Most of what’s here does sound like first passes at songs, new suits being tried on to check out the fit. Mission of Burma is a strong enough band to still delivering some damn fine material, even under those circumstances. The blistering album opener “Execution” has the charged heated of punk authenticity, and there’s a thrilling swerve between proper propulsion and unsettling musical discordance on “Playland” (the latter song eventually showed up again on ONoffON).

The band’s restless propensity for experimentalism is present throughout, as on “Manic Incarnation,” which starts collapsing in on itself midway through. Sometimes it does sound like the band merely slopping around, maybe or maybe not on their way to something better and more cogent (“Active in the Yard”). Certainly the stuff on here rarely sounds anywhere near finished (“Head Over Head” is the closest they come to the mind meld of punk abrasion and eloquent tunefulness that typifies their best work), making it a sort of permission slip to later bands like Pavement and Guided By Voices, proudly half-assing their way to acclaimed releases. The problem with that potential influence is that most bands don’t have the astonishing capability of Mission of Burma in their prime. The malformed material only sounds this strong if the talent in there to deliver a finished product in excess of what most can do. Mission of Burma had that. Their necessary few releases from the early eighties proved it. In its own unique way, Forget does too.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 13

13. Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked

I’m going to flip the script for this week’s entry. Usually, I track through where I was at in my musical growth when I first encountered the record featured, talk about the actual merits of the music, and then finish with a brief consideration of where the artist has gone in the twenty-five (plus!) years since. With Michelle Shocked, however, I feel compelled to begin with the unexpected anti-gay marriage rant from last year that earned her more prominent placement in the music press than she’s had in years. I would have quickly named Shocked as one of my favorite performers through the first half of the nineteen-nineties, but I largely lost track of her somewhere around the time she wrenched herself free of the label contract that inspired her to name a self-released album Artists Make Lousy Slaves. By the time I got to hear her output again a few years later, it sounded drab enough to me that I didn’t give it much additional thought. I certainly didn’t know she’d become a born again Christian, openly referring to herself as “the world’s greatest homophobe” when asked about the lesbian fan base that was instrumental in her early success. So the bigotry she espoused was entirely unexpected to me, especially since it was so completely at odds with the image I had of her from the time when I was an avid listener. She was a lefty protest singer when I left her. Now she was practically auditioning for a spot on a Fox News panel (well, except for getting arrested at Occupy L.A. protests).

As I noted, my disinterest in her more recent music is entirely on its merits (albeit merits gauged in the equivalent of glancing blows) and not predicated on a personal aversion to her bigotry, though that reaction is firmly in place. I’ve long said that if I got rid of every album in my collection that was created by everyone who I was pretty sure could be reasonably termed as an asshole in real life, I wouldn’t have much much music left to listen to. Still, I take a certain satisfaction in the fact that it’s now been a long, long time since I’ve supported Shocked in any way, while simultaneously feeling a little tingle of what can best be called regret whenever one of her old songs shuffles up. All that typed, Short Sharp Shocked is a terrific album.

Released by Mercury Records in the fall of 1988, Short Sharp Shocked was Shocked’s second album, and it was a clear statement of purpose. Her debut release, The Texas Campfire Tapes, is exactly what title implies. The album is what the lo-fi kids dream about: it’s nothing more than Shocked sitting out in the open air, playing her guitar and singing her songs. There are crickets in the background. The starkness of unadorned music presented her as a songwriter, first and foremost. She was a nimble musician and possessed an evocative voice, but the selling point was her ability to craft compelling songs that told stories both simple and profound. That established, Short Sharp Shocked seemed positioned to prove how much more she could do. The opening track, “When I Grow Up,” is layered with different studio adornments, as if to jar any listener expecting more of the same. It’s hardly a New Order song or anything like that, but it is loaded with strange, bendy noises that alter the dynamics of the song, heightening the sense of oddity as Shocked announces in the lyrics that she plans to have well over a hundred babies, adding, “We’ll raise ’em on tiger’s milk and green bananas/ Mangoes and coconuts and watermelons/ We’re gonna give ’em that watermelon when they starts yellin’.”

Across the album, Shocked balances folk-punk sensibilities with an earthier brand of studio polish, the latter provided by producer Pete Anderson, a longtime collaborator of Dwight Yoakam. Lead single “Anchorage” even alludes to this, as the reported correspondence with her friend who’s relocated to “the largest state in the Union” asks her “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker” and notes that her husband, Leroy, urges her to “keep on rocking, girl.” He also wants a picture. While Shocked made a case for herself as a pointed, politically-minded folk singer, she clearly didn’t want to be pigeonholed either. Thought that would become even more clear on subsequent releases, Short Sharp Shocked is already filled with songs that convincingly make the case that Shocked can zip across different styles: the bluesy grind of “If Love Was a Train,” the punk blast of hidden track “Fogtown,” the protest song repackaged as oblong jazz rumination with “Graffiti Limbo.”

That diversity of sound combined with the strength of her point of view had me convinced that Shocked was one of those artists who was in it for the long haul. This wasn’t just an interesting voice, I though. It was an important voice. I stuck with that conviction for a while, thought Shocked kept doing little things to convince me otherwise, including the one live performance I saw, circa 1996, when she alternated between daffily charming and borderline basket case. Still, I never foresaw how far off the rails she’d someday go, so far that it’s inconceivable she can find her way back to the sturdy, steel pathway ever again.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 14

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14. They Might Be Giants, Lincoln

When I arrived at the campus radio station in the fall of 1988, I was a relative neophyte when it came to college rock. I certainly put on airs that I knew more than I did, the cool kid culture of college radio necessitating a reasonable amount of knowledge to earn respect (or so I thought). And I was an eager, fast learner. Still, I had only the barest exposure to many of the bands that were staples on our airwaves, so anytime I encountered an album from a band I felt I knew a little better, I was extremely grateful. Therefore, I felt very lucky that my arrival coincided with that of Lincoln, the sophomore release from They Might Be Giants.

Now, it’s not as if I knew the band comprised of the Two Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh), but their very first single, “Don’t Let’s Start” (off of their self-titled debut), became an unlikely MTV staple, thanks to an attention-getting, oddball music video. That coincided with just enough laudatory press to raise their stature in my limited view. I caught other songs from them here and there (their follow-up music video, stray favorites that got played in the strange corners of one of the local radio station’s programming schedule), meaning I roughly knew what to expect with Lincoln. Namely, the songs would be catchy, quirky, and demonstrate a giddy freedom to bound across genres, adopting a reshaping everything they touched to their own smart aleck sensibilities. Even the trade publication ads touting the album took a cheeky tone, proclaiming Lincoln as the proud successor to other much-loved items that shared its name, from a president to a town to delightfully fun logs.

I’m not sure if I can term Lincoln as the first album from that autumn semester that I fell totally, irretrievably in love with (that honor is probably reserved for the album up for discussion when the countdown reaches the number five slot), but it is certainly the record that made me appreciate the value in music that was clearly shaped by a distinctive, singular voice and yet was incredibly diverse. I could return to Lincoln week after week and always feel like I was playing songs that kept my playlist fluidly different. I could incorporate the jerky honky tonk of “Cowtown,” the bizarro jazz of “Lie Still, Little Bottle,” or the art piece aggression of “You’ll Miss Me.” When the holiday season rolled around, my general aversion to Christmas songs fell before the thumping charms of “Santa’s Beard.” That’s a big batch of songs that I was happy to drop the needle on, and I haven’t yet covered the real pinnacles of the album.

I once read a music piece that cited “Ana Ng” as one of the greatest love songs ever recorded, an assertion I original found ludicrous. Then I thought more about it. Lincoln‘s spectacular lead single is ostensibly about a doomed romance between the song’s protagonist and the Vietnamese woman of the title, with the lament “Ana Ng and I are getting old/ And we still haven’t walked in the glow/ Of each other’s majestic presence” serving as a poignant, pointed explication of the enduring misery of unrequited love. The song is filled with lyrics of great affect, including, “When I was driving once I saw this painted on a bridge:/ ‘I don’t want the world, I just want your half,'” as well as the vivid imagery of the opening: “Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/ To the name of this town in a desktop globe/ Exit wound in a foreign nation/ Showing the home of the one this was written for.” (The latter was reportedly inspired by an old Pogo comic strip.) The whole track is stealthily ravishing.

At the time, I was maybe even more taken with the direct heartache of follow-up single “They’ll Need a Crane” (“Love sees love’s happiness/ But happiness can’t see that love is sad”). But then I found a new potential favorite with nearly every shift: “The World’s Address,” “Purple Toupee,” “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go.” Lincoln had a total of eighteen tracks, and I think it’s likely I played every last one of them — some of them multiple times — before it completed its journey through the station’s rotation. Of course I did. Lincoln represented a safe zone for me, a band I had some amount of command over, a knowledge level that wasn’t all that dissimilar from anyone else in the station. Besides, they were funny, lively, and a little bratty, although harmlessly so in the case of the latter quality. I suppose I could relate.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages