College Countdown, The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981, 1

elvis trust

1. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Trust

Trouser Press wrote: “A confident show from Mr. Reliable before plunging into Nashville terra incognita.”

Trust was the first of two albums Elvis Costello released in 1981, and, as the review implies, the latter offering was considered problematic, at best. Entitled Almost Blue, it’s a covers album feature nothing but country songs, many of them penned by seminal figures of the genre: Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones. It was reviewed in the very same issue of Trouser Press that lauded Trust as the best album of the year. The writer conveys guarded respect and confusion more than pure ire (“Almost Blue demonstrates Costello’s affection for the genre — three cheers for that! — but keeps the clinical distance of an observor”), but the sense of fan agitation is clear in the single sentence used to cite Trust‘s excellence. After an early career that seemed to redefine the level of cerebral wherewithal that could be brought to rock songwriting, could the guy with the blocky black glasses finally be slipping?

Realistically — and I court accusations of alternative rock heresy for saying this — but the possibility that Costello wasn’t going to be an endless font of classic records was creeping in already on Trust. Before I get myself in too deep, let’s acknowledge that Trust had the burden of following up an quartet of records — My Aim is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy! — that’s as good as any rock ‘n’ roll opening statement ever made. There’s only one directional arrow at the end of that roadway, and it points straight down. A guy can only be slagged so much for making music that’s a let-down from material like that.

Trust reminds me of any number of latter-day Costello records, the sort that are sturdy, admirable, and clearly penned by a guy with a sterling vocabulary. It’s also oddly passionless. Songs like “Watch Your Step” and “New Lace Sleeves” may be early indications of Costello’s abiding desire to be a crooner (a desire he would later take to blissfully ridiculous extremes) but they’re also songs that just kind of lie there on the album. Costello later noted that Trust was “the most drug-influenced” album he ever created as he and his bandmates were using their studio time to perform undocumented experiments on excessive consumption levels and that embrace of boozy, druggy hedonism could certainly help explain the flagging energy.

There are surely plenty of exceptions on the record: “Clubland” is sharp and inventive, “White Knuckles” is fierce and harrowing, and “From a Whisper to a Scream” is terrifically lively, perhaps inspired somewhat Costello’s need to properly keep up with Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze who turns up to offer guest vocals. Like Costello’s previous outings, the album was produced by Nick Lowe, and he provides his steady, distinctive touch. The string of consecutive collaborations ended here, although Lowe would serve in that capacity one more time in the future, shepherding the album that can arguably be considered Costello’s last truly great one. I’ll leave it to others to determine if that’s a telling fact or merely coincidence.

Trust is a respectable record, but it almost seems that Trouser Press selected it to make a statement, communicating to Costello that a foray into covering country songs may be a fun time for him, but — by god! — this was the sort of record he was supposed to be making. In comparison, the Trouser Press writers and editors may have been right, but Costello’s wheels had started losing traction a little earlier than they supposed.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story
3. (tie) The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat
3. (tie) The Clash, Sandinista!
2. U2, Boy

College Countdown: The Trouser Press Top 10 of 1981, 2

boy

2. U2, Boy

Trouser Press wrote: “Raw, quivering messages from the heart. Defiant expressionism at a time we could use it.”

Well, credit Trouser Press with the prescience of astute early adopters in this instance. It’s not that U2’s debut album wasn’t without other champions at the time–it ranked at a respectable number eighteen on the highly influential Village Voice year-end poll–but to give it runner-up ranking demonstrates a unique level of confidence in the four scruffy gents from Ireland. To be even-handed about this, it’s not as if the capsule review gave any indication that U2 had the potential to become one of the biggest rock bands in the world at some point in the future. Instead, those couple of sentences simply provide a terrifically accurate read on what that album must have sounded like to anyone who approached it with attentive ears and an open intellect.

By now, that U2 style of music has gotten so entrenched in the bustling garden of pop music that it takes some significant mental rejiggering to conjure up a time when a new U2 album sounded like nothing else that had come out before, not quite. Hell, Boy didn’t even really sound like the prior U2 efforts. Okay, so Edge’s chiming guitar and Bono’s up-and-down roar was present from the very first song of their debut EP, 1979’s Three. But the tones were a little more insistent, a little more piercing. That quality was compounded on one of the two singles that preceded their first full-length. Shaped by Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” is tough, jagged, edgy and points to what Boy could have been. Hannett was expected to produce U2’s debut album, but he was distraught over the suicide of Joy Division leader Ian Curtis and backed out. Steve Lillywhite, producer for Siouxsie and the Bashees and Peter Gabriel, stepped in to take his place. The distinctive U2 sound, more or less, was the result.

The band hadn’t quite nailed down the anthemic quality that would help them fill stadiums, but songs like “I Will Follow” and “A Day Without Me” absolutely indicate a band that was trying for a bigger sonic thunder than the average club could contain. The Edge may not have had quite as many tools in his kit, but he clearly knew how he wanted to play guitar (so many times over the years, he has kicked out some rough variation of the opening line of “Twilight”) and the rhythm section of Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen, Jr. on drums was already as clean and steady as a metronome. A song like “Out of Control” may not indicate a band on the precipice of continually pushing against the potential limitations of operating with little more than three chords and the truth, but it’s surely evidence that they know how to play together, how to draw from one another’s strengths and fill in for little weaknesses. It was only on a slower song, such as album closer “Shadows and Tall Trees,” that the band betrayed the growth they still needed.

Things, it’s fair to say, only got better from there. With their next album, October, the band started to get some chart attention for their singles: “Fire” was a top forty song in the U.K. and went all the way to number four in their Irish homeland. The attention increased with 1983’s War and 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. After that, they took almost three years to release their next album, a surprisingly long time for an up-and-coming band in that era of music. Despite the questionable strategy, it seemed to work out fairly well for them.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story
3. (tie) The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat
3. (tie) The Clash, Sandinista!

College Countdown: The Trouser Press Top 10 Albums of 1981, 3 (tie)

clash

3. The Clash, Sandinista!

Trouser Press wrote: “Overblown, overambitious and only this bunch could pull it off. Still the only band that matters?”

How in the hell does a band follow-up a double-album that immediately got tagged with wholly justifiable hyperbole about its excellence that put in league with the finest rock ‘n’ roll records ever devoted to vinyl? With a triple-album, of course.

London Calling, released in the U.K. in late 1979 and stateside in early 1980, included a promotional sticker affixed by label CBS that proclaimed The Clash “The Only Band That Matters.” It’s a measure of the band’s force and the album’s excellence that it was seen less as an example of corporate sloganeering and more of a statement of truth. The songs, penned primarily by guitarists Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (with one track credited to bassist Paul Simonon, but what a song), were a collected howl of rage at the decaying society the band saw when they looked out their studio window. Corporate control was stripping away humanity and the mates bashed away as their resulting dismay with music that harnessed the fury of punk but applied it to song structures modeled on far more intricate music styles such as soul and reggae.

The Clash originally hoped to record and release a new single every month of 1980, but the label dissuaded them from that idea. Instead, they marshaled their energies into writing and recording the vast array of songs that would be spread across six vinyl sides for the album Sandinista! Some bands would use that sort of sprawl to demonstrate their range, but The Clash seem determined to decisively demonstrate that range is an inaccurate term for them since it implies a couple of endpoints. Beginning with the bully boy rap on the album’s opening track, “The Magnificent Seven,” The Clash is announcing that they can do damn well anything they want. The whole album proceeds with an almost cavalier willingness to engage in every shard of a musical idea that strikes them. The reggae influence abounds, but the album also has clear nods to Motown R&B, disco (on a song with a rare lead vocal from drummer Topper Headon) and dub. The album is everything all at once, equally exhausting and exhilarating.

For a long time, I was absolute in my view that the discoography of The Clash could be cleaved right in half, with the first three releases–The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope and London Calling–representing unquestionable greatness and everything after suitable for disappointment or disdain. I adhered to a the conclusion that Sandinista! was too wide-ranging, too unwieldy. It was too many ideas, I thought, in search of a coherent unifying vision to hammer them into shape. Lately, though, I’ve come around to the idea that, like The Beatles’ self-titled release commonly known as “The White Album,” that it’s the very scattershot blast of the record that gives it its strength. It’s not muddled and confused; instead, it’s deliberately eschewing the notion of cohesion to embrace unhindered creativity. Everything on the album sounds unmistakably like a Clash song, but not a single track sounds like Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headron were actively trying to make a Clash song, to adhere to established expectations.

My thorough shift in opinion about the quality of the record is almost enough to tempt me to freshly reevaluate Combat Rock. Almost. There’s no such temptation for Cut the Crap, the last studio album billed to The Clash, although Jones and Headon were out of the band by that point. The original quartet went onto other projects, with Mick Jones arguably achieving the greatest success, both artistically and commercially, through his work with Big Audio Dynamite. In a shocking turn, Strummer died at the age of 50 in 2002, felled by a previously undiagnosed heart problem.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story
3. The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat

College Countdown: The Trouser Press Top 10 Albums of 1981, 3 (tie)

 

go-gos-beauty_and_the_beat1

3. The Go-Go’s, Beauty and the Beat

Trouser Press wrote: “Refreshing dose of pop insouciance. Also the new wave chart invaders of the year.”

The previous subject of the College Countdown feature, 90FM’s Top 90 Albums of 1989, was presented on air on New Year’s Eve, with the process of getting to the top of the list intended to occupy the entire programming day. The way the countdown was structured, however, required a little something more to help fill out the time. Luckily, CMJ, the trade publication that served college radio, was celebrating its tenth anniversary and had sent the station a handsome paperback book highlighting some of the finest music of the decade of their existence, including a tally of the ten strongest charting albums during the publications existence. Since all of the releases on that list had copyright dates in the nineteen-eighties, I treated it as a de facto “Biggest College Radio Albums of the Eighties” chart and we dropped in songs from those various records during the course of the day.

I don’t remember every album on that list–and the original CMJ anniversary book is something that’s long gone, though I’d love to get my hands on it again–but I do recall that R.E.M. was well-represented and Life’s Too Good by The Sugarcubes was the most recent album to rank among the ten. I also remember that the album at number one was Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go’s. This countered all my expectations and predispositions about the “coolness” of music that succeeded on college radio. I expected the album that had the landmark status of being played more than any other during what was arguably the medium’s most prosperous decade would have been one of the icons of hipper-than-thou, ragged magnificence: The Replacements, The Cure, Hüsker Dü, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths, Elvis Costello. It certainly didn’t make sense to me that it was the debut release from The Go-Go’s, an album that topped the Billboard album charts for six weeks and spawned hit singles so ubiquitous that they could be held up as an adequate description of mainstream music. Where was the outlaw flipped bird to the dictates of the music industry in playing that record?

That was my own short-sightedness, I suppose; falling into the common trap of viciously rejecting the music industry’s attempts to dictate what I should like to such a degree that I reject any record that’s experienced a little success–or a lot of success–out of hand. I defined The Go-Go’s not by the quality of their music, but by the sheer amount of times I saw their music videos blaze across MTV and other similar outlets. The band was so successful that I even lost sight of the not insignificant detail that Beauty and the Beat was issued by an independent record label, I.R.S. Records, and wasn’t handed down from a major label mountain destined for success because some bigwigs decided on it. There were even shards of glass ceiling that needed to brushed away from the album cover since this was the first album to top that Billboard chart from a rock band entirely comprised of women who also handled all of the songwriting duties. Thirty years later, that achievement remains singular: no other all-female band that took similar charge of the creative process has landed at the top spot.

I’ll admit that the album’s buoyancy and gloss still doesn’t particularly enliven me, though I am newly impressed by the aptness of Trouser Press‘s description of “pop insouciance.” Despite the girl power achievement of the commercial accomplishment of the band and album, there’s not a whole lot of overt feminist fervor to the music. It lacks the implied “fuck you” snarl of The Runaways, whose every chord seemed a repudiation of any jerkface who dared to think he could put them in their place. Instead, The Go-Go’s actually lean on a certain pajama party celebratory spirit, a girlish playfulness that almost comes across as an acceptance of a gender-driven confinements. Girls, as it would be explained a couple years later, just want to have fun. That lip gloss cheeriness allowed the band to deliver doses of self-assurance and empowerment on the sly. “Tonite” may be about little more than turning boys head during a fun night on the town, but there’s something about the lyrics “There’s nothing/ There’s no one/ To stand in our way” that sticks. And “Fading Fast” upends the heartbroken tropes of a fleet of girl group songs to allow the woman to discard a caddish boyfriend with a plainspoken strength, a quality bolstered by Belinda Carlisle’s vocal performance, which has a emotional fullness reminiscent of Kate Pierson of The B-52’s. It’s by far her best moment on the record.

There are plenty of weak points on the album–“You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep (If You Can’t Sleep)” is as dopey as the title implies–but I can now appreciate why it would have captured the intense interest of college radio programmers in 1981 (which was also a time, it should be noted, when the borders were drawn hazily enough that the likes of Phil Collins and The Moody Blues were also the beneficiaries of significant left of the dial airplay). Not every revolution requires that machines be raged against. Sometimes lulling them into submission with glistening hooks delivered with a happy smile is a better way to go. If it didn’t pass my own arbitrarily-conceived coolness test a few years later, so what? For those kids at the start of the decade–my predecessors in the college radio air chair–it was good enough to set them dancing in their seats and keep reaching for it again and again.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian
5. Squeeze, East Side Story

College Countdown: The Trouser Press Top Ten Albums of 1981, 5

squeeze

5. Squeeze, East Side Story

Trouser Press wrote: “Craftsmanship needn’t be dull. Someday their songs will get the recognition they deserve; don’t wait.”

Well, Trouser Press was sure correct about that “someday” part of the review. Though the album was moderately successful at the time, certain songs have developed in prominence over the years to effectively become standards of the quiet pop mastery vein of New Wave. “Tempted,” in particular, became of those songs that insinuated itself so deeply in pop culture that modern music fans would be forgiven for assuming it was an enormous hit back in 1981, instead of its actual fate of petering out before reaching the Top 40 in either the U.K. or the U.S. It wasn’t even the most successful track from the album, at least in their homeland. The third single, “Labelled with Love,” took its heartfelt cowpoke strum all the way to the U.K. Top 10, standing as the last Squeeze single to climb that high. That song was even big enough to lend its name to a stage musical based on Squeeze’s music that debuted in London a couple years later.

East Side Story was the band’s fourth album and found them in a bit of a state of flux. While songwriters Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook were the names that most needed to be in the credits list to ensure that a release could be reasonably labeled as a Squeeze record, the band had lost a fairly prominent member when keyboardist Jools Holland decided to leave the group in favor of a solo career and, eventually, co-hosting the loopy music television show The Tube. Top take his place, Squeeze recruited Paul Carrack, formerly of the band Ace. He stuck around for East Side Story before slipping out of the line-up himself, which briefly helped end the band altogether before a quick rejuvenation that found the revolving door of personnel spinning wildly. Including the five members who can make a claim to currently being in the group, Wikipedia lists twenty-one individuals who can put “member of Squeeze” on their résumés. Good god, there’s even a chart.

Originally, East Side Story was going to be a far more ambitious release. The band planned to record a double LP with a different big-name producer for each side. Elvis Costello, Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe were said to be already lined up, and the band was angling for no less than Paul McCartney for the fourth side. That didn’t play out, however, and the album wound up produced largely by Costello, working with his regular studio collaborator Roger Bechirian. There was still a good deal of stretching employed on the release as Difford and Tilbrook toyed with different styles throughout. Besides the countryfied lope of “Labelled with Love,” the album included the rockabilly stroll of “Messed Around,” the moony, Beatlesque psychedelia of “There’s No Tomorrow” and the elegant, drawing room pop of “Vanity Fair.” In all, the album provides an object lesson in how a band can remain resolute true to their own established style while adventurously striding into new sonic areas.

The album is also rife with examples of Squeeze pulling over the deceptively difficult trick of just coming up with a brisk, bright, brilliant pop song of the sort that helpless singing along begins before the the first play has even completed. Hearing one of those again is its own misguided assertion that these guys, this album these songs must have been huge upon release. It sadly wasn’t the case. Too many people foolishly decided to wait.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. (tie) The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II
6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian

College Countdown: The Trouser Press, Top Ten Albums of 1981, 6

holly right

6. Holly and the Italians, The Right to Be Italian

Trouser Press wrote: “More polished than the Go-Go’s, but just as breezy and tuneful. (Subscribers: Play flexi-disc for details.)”

The album The Right to Be Italian opens with lead singer Holly Beth Vincent offering up a modified Shakespeare quote: “Some people achieve greatness, others have it thrust upon them, and then there are those that are born Italian.” She chuckles and a quick drum beat kicks in for a few seconds before a sharp guitar starts buzzing out of a nice, comfortable riff. “I Wanna Go Home” is the first track on the debut album from Holly and the Italians and it wastes no time in establishing who this band is going to be and what they’re going to sound like. It’s old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll, the sort of thing Phil Spector would have dropped a wall of sound upon. It’s retro, tough and unabashedly fun. I’m not sure if it’s more polished that the debut for the Go-Go’s which came out the same year, but it’s certainly sleeker and more powerful, the revving motorcycle to their humming convertible.

I mean, metaphors invoking toughness simply have to be used when discussing the band that created the wickedly great rock song “Tell That Girl to Shut Up.” Though the later cover version by Transvision Vamp is arguably more famous (if only because it’s the one more likely to get dragged out for eighties flashback club nights or radio shows, even though it wasn’t much of hit upon its original release), it belonged to Holly and the Italians, even serving as the band’s debut single on the Oval Records label in 1980. That single combined with good buzz they were getting for opening for bands such as Blondie in the U.K. to get them a deal with Virgin Records, which ushered them to the full-length debut.

The album tapped into the snarling forthrightness of the time, owing something to the likes of the Runaways and their old friend on the club bill, Blondie. “Baby Gets it All” was the sort of youth-titled shrug of rebellion that Joan Jett could have dashed off between drags of a cigarette and “Miles Away” practically emanated romanticized heartbreak in its thudding chords. Vincent sang these songs with unabashed conviction but also enough off an edge that she didn’t come across as some sort of wimpy victim. She was effectively getting her own sort of revenge by sharing these songs, by reaching out to others who waited in parks alone for the jerkface dreamboat who would never show and gaining strength through the melodic commiseration. It’s the girl group model of days gone by, but with an extra blast of cranked up guitars that was reminiscent of the sounds the Ramones created when they rifled through their old 45s looking for song ideas. (Vincent’s approach made her enough of an honorary Ramones that she recorded a very familiar duet with Joey Ramone in 1982.)

The band may have had a tough sound, but that didn’t guarantee resiliency was a characteristic of the group itself. By the following year, the band broke up and Vincent released a solo album that borrowed her former band’s name for a title (in part, it seems, to honor contractual obligations with Virgin Records). Vincent also briefly spent time in the Waitresses and took further swings at the music biz with other solo endeavors and bands that didn’t quite take, such as the horribly named Vowel Movement, the outfit Johnette Napolitano started after the initial end of Concrete Blonde.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. The dB’s, Stands for Decibels
7. The Pretenders, II

College Countdown: The Trouser Press Top 10 Albums of 1981, 7

7. The Pretenders, II

Trouser Press wrote: “Derivative? Sure! But Chrissie Hynde can still charm your pants off (sic) when she wants.”

Let me start by noting that I don’t get that review. It’s not that I substantively disagree with it; rather, I genuinely don’t understand what’s being communicated. I know the band employed a classic pop sound that did a little bit of a retrospective bank shot around punk music–while still smartly employing the genre’s fervent strength–but I’m not sure they leaned enough on the past to be truly considered derivative, though I’ll concede that my perspective on that has surely been reshaped by modern groups that expertly (and brilliantly) pilfer bygone rock styles like they’re rifling through a weathered steamer trunk of vaudevillian costumes. Or maybe the album is tagged as derivative because it doesn’t stray far enough from the sonic patterns established on the band’s acclaimed debut from the prior year. And I’m completely puzzled by what sort of snarky or ironic comment that (sic) is meant to convey.

Of course, it’s particularly hard with the Pretenders to sidestep the years of accumulated canonization of their songs to consider what their place in the musical firmament was like when their second album was recent enough that the shrink-wrap around it was still a little warm. I feel like the actual group isn’t often considered for placement among the all-time greats, but those songs they crafted certain endure as ubiquitous staples, don’t they? Tracks like “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town” (both released earlier in the year on an EP before landing on Pretenders II) are simply rock era standards, fitting as comfortably into any mix as the most unabashedly loved Beatles songs. Songs from the Pretenders seem to show up all over the place, and they never jolt anyone. They’re part of the ongoing cultural soundtrack and often seem like they were made to be just that.

That imagined desire to blend in was clearly not the case, however. Records built for inoffensive mass adulation don’t open with the line, “I’m the adultress,” purred by the lead singer with a tone balanced precariously between taunt and seduction. And then follow that up with a song called “Bad Boys Get Spanked”? That includes the sounds of whip cracks and the lyric, “You don’t listen, do ya, asshole?” Certainly, trying to provoke is one route to commercial success, but the far stronger sentiment is that Chrissie Hynde doesn’t give a shit about playing nice and selling records. If she wants to cover a Kinks song just like she did on the first album, then that’s damn well what she’s going to do.

This was the last album released by the original line-up of the Pretenders. Within a year, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott would die at age of twenty-five, his body shutting down largely due to his robust drug use. From there, the band’s line-up changed often (the Wikipedia page for the band lists a total of seventeen people that can claim, at one time or another, to have been Pretenders), making it more clear than ever that Hynde was the mechanic of the music and everyone other tool and component was fully replaceable. That didn’t hurt the music right away, but there was eventually a sense of soldiering on rather than a genuine impulse to create. Of course, some of the comparatively lackluster efforts that come out under the Pretenders name could also be attributed to the fact that Hynde was a great singles artist operating in an albums era. Of course, no one was going to tell Hynde that without her sparking up to aggressively prove that assessment wrong. And honestly, II is a pretty good counter-argument.

Previously
Introduction
10. The Dictators, Fuck ‘Em if They Can’t Take a Joke
8. (tie) The Undertones, Positive Touch
8. The dB’s, Stands for Decibels