College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 130 – 128


130. Cocteau Twins, “Carolyn’s Fingers”

The Cocteau Twins sound was well-established by the time they recorded their 1988 album, Blue Bell Knoll, stirring the ethereally gloomy hearts of a sizable enough fan base in the U.S. to trigger genially perplexed stories on local television news. They could have easily locked in and kept on with the flow — that’s what the dreamy music sounds like it’s suited for, after all — but they wanted to take greater control of what they created. The band’s fifth album was the first on which they took charge completely. “I just realized I needed to learn how to do all the production stuff myself,” guitarist Guthrie later explained. “The first few records we didn’t do it ourselves. It was, ‘Oh, you don’t touch the mixing desk; you’re just the band. You’re not allowed to touch that; you’re just a kid. You’ll break it.'” The resulting work is such an ideal expression of Cocteau Twins that is is practically defining, not just for the band, but for their label, 4AD. The album’s lead single, “Carolyn’s Finger,” might as well be the anthem of the nation of 4AD. Countless acts on its roster — even to this day — swirl their lithe fingers in the same eddy of lush, lovely oddity. As further evidence of the track’s quintessential nature, it shimmers with aloof abstraction, another hallmark of both the band the label. No one in the Cocteau Twins ever seemed all that interested in unveiling the songs secrets. “People can think what they want!”vocalist Elizabeth Fraser once replied when asked to parse its meaning, adding, “As long as they don’t wind up disappointed in us. We’ve got no control over that, really.”



129. Big Audio Dynamite, “Just Play Music!”

From the very beginning of Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones insisted the group was meant to reverberate with a diversity of thought and creative input. “We are trying to be democratic in a totalitarian sense of the word,” Jones explained. “I get a lot of help from everyone, and it works out really well.” That ethos gave the music released by the band a tremor of unpredictability as different styles looped up together, even if they sometimes seemed wildly incompatible. While the former guitarist for the Clash wasn’t reticent about bringing a little pointed political commentary to his new endeavor from time to time, the chief goal of Big Audio Dynamite was seemingly encompassed by the title of the 1988 single “Just Play Music!” The track closes out the band’s third album, Tighten Up Vol. 88, the title of which riffed on the classic reggae comps released by Trojan Records during the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, tipping off one on the driving influences on the music. As a single, it had distinction of being the second song to take up residence on the top of the Billboard Modern Rocks Tracks chart, spending a single week in the position in between bookending appearances by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Peek-A-Boo” in that spot. The message of “Just Play Music!” may have been simple, but it was undoubtedly sincere. “I think it’s a growing thing, a matter of getting people to listen, changing the way they think. I just want to communicate and play music,” said Jones.



128. New Order, “True Faith”

Admitting upfront that the members of New Order tend toward a slippery version of the truth when discussing the motivation and meaning of their individual songs, Bernard Sumner claimed that “True Faith” was the result of a deliberate attempt to write a Top 40 hit. A hefty tax bill was coming due, prompting the band members to sit down with their new producer Stephen Hague and work up a new song. “I had an idea for the bass line, Gillian [Gilbert] had some string ideas, Stephen got some drums down,” Sumner later recounted. “When we got the track going, I was sent off to the flat we had in London with a bottle of Pernod and told not to show my face again until I’d written the lyrics.” The story conveyed by those lyrics are somewhat in dispute. Sumner claims the lyrics are about drug dependency, specifically heroin, and are specifically written from the perspective of a user. There was even a shift in the lyrics when Hague suggests taking out an explicit reference to the drug. Peter Hook interprets the song differently, though. “‘True Faith’ features some of the best New Order lyrics in my opinion, but no, it is not about heroin, that is not something that any of our lyrics ever touched on,” Hook said. “I think it’s clear to see though that the lyrics do reflect being under some sort of influence.” Added onto the compilation Substance, released in 1987, “True Faith” was nearly overlooked by the band as a potential single, despite its creative origins as aspiring chart fodder. They evidently toyed wth the idea of instead giving a hearty push to “Touched by the Hand of God,” a song written for the misbegotten satire film Salvation! The label felt differently, and eventually got New Order to relent. boosting the prospects of the song with an attention-getting music video directed by French choreographer Phillippe DeCouffle. The plan worked. “True Faith” became New Order’s highest charting song in the U.K. to that point and their first single to break into the Billboard Top 40.


As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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