1000. Falco, Einzelhaft (1982)
In the early nineteen-eighties, German pop music was having a moment in the U.S. That surge in popularity was so pronounced that two different tracks sung in German — Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” and Peter Schilling’s “Major Tom” — charted comfortably high in the Billboard Top 40. In each case, the artists also released English language versions, but the originals, delivered in their mother tongue, also enjoyed significant airplay on commercial radio.
Falco (the performing name of Johann Hölzel) hailed from the country next door, but Austria and Germany share a language. So his 1982 debut album, Einzelhaft, was entirely in German, but that didn’t overly dissuade college radio programmers. The mainstream success arrived a few years later, when Falco acquiesced to make certain his oddball romps about revered classical music composers had English lyrics.
It surely helped that the material on Einzelhaft had vibrant post-disco grooves and intriguing integrations of the shifting styles found in pop music during a particularly seismic time. There are nifty little oddities, such as the panting that pitches on the rhythm track for “Auf der Flucht.” Mostly, though, the album is filled with songs that transcend language — or at least set language aside as a mildly incidental curiosity — because they’re sturdy as can be.
“Ganz Wien” has one of those candy-coated guitar solos that didn’t solely exist in the eighties, but certainly sat more comfortably there than in any other pop era. (The song was nicked by Falco from an earlier punk band in which he served as a bassist.) The title cut recalls the propulsive quality of Kraftwerk at their most stern and focused, and “Nie mehr Schule” plays like JV Bowie, which means it’s still pretty damn good.
All over the album, Falco comes bounding in on to deliver lyrics pitched somewhere between chanting and rapping, both mimicking the emerging musical form and anticipating how all manner of rap and hip hop textures would become central to almost all of pop music. “Der Kommissar” has the clearest early rap influence, suggesting what Blondie’s “Rapture” might have sounded like had they not played it cool. The U.K. band After the Fire took a translated version of “Der Kommissar” all the way up to the Billboard Top 5 about a year later. That strikes me a further proof that Falco was on to something.
999. Blue in Heaven, Explicit Material (1986)
As with just about any Irish band that emerged in the nineteen-eighties, Blue in Heaven had a U2 connection. The quartet was signed to U2’s Mother Records label, releasing a few singles during their tenure. The material was evidently good enough to capture the attention of Island Records, the major label that counted U2 as one of the stalwarts of their stable of artists. Blue in Heaven was signed and saw their debut album, All the Gods’ Men, released in 1985.
For their follow-up release, Blue in Heaven was considered enough of a priority that the label’s founder, Chris Blackwell, pitched in as co-producer. Explicit Material sounds like it was genetically engineered to slide onto college radio playlists with starry-eyed hopes of commercial crossover, which is, of course, another way of explaining it is bland and derivative in a hard-to-pin-down way. “Sister” might be the clearest example, since its brand of loping pop echoes Psychedelic Furs at their least urgent.
On “Be Your Man,” lead singer Shane O’Neill tries to adopt the snarl of Iggy Pop — a sensation compounded by the lyric “I wanna be your dog” slipping in there a few times — while the vocals on “Rolling in the Crowd” pick up a very Hoodoo Gurus vibe. The lyrics don’t help much. “Change Your Mind” is speckled with lines of drab seduction (“Your body waits for me tonight”), like gothy pop with the danger softened.
The band lasted a few more years, but Explicit Material was their final full-length release. The reconfigured as the Blue Angels for a stretch in the early nineties, and drummer Dave Clarke struck out to play with other Irish groups, such as the Black Velvet Band and Hothouse Flowers.
998. Fleshtones, Fleshtones vs. Reality (1987)
When Fleshtones vs. Reality was released, the band was at a crossroads of sorts. Usually categorized as a loose, fun, proudly frivolous ensemble — because of both the lack of fuss in the band’s garage rock punch and the occasional reputation for raucous behavior — they were determined to deliver a statement of revived purpose, just over a decade they made their debut at CBGB. Recently departed from I.R.S. Records, the Fleshtones wanted listeners to know they still had something to offer. The album’s back cover boasted a rollicking manifesto.
“Although internationally known as ‘Nice Guys’, the FLESHTONES henceforth operate on a SUPER-REVENGE MOTIF, ensuring ‘Great Music’ — and lots of laughs as their plans invariably explode in their faces,” the spirited diatribe read, in part. “Do not attempt to recreate these stunts at home, merely purchase this LP and let these trained professionals get your kicks for you. GO AHEAD. IT’S ALRIGHT.”
For those who wanted to find it, there was evidence of scruffy charm. Following “Way Up Here” with the similarly-titled “Way Down South” on the track listing is a thing of beauty, hinting at a glorious devil-may-care attitude. There’s no need to be precious and arty about this stuff. It’s just good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. “Too Late to Run” is a little like the sort of stuff Let’s Active kicked out with regularity at the time, and “What Ever Makes You Happy” is boisterous as it tells a familiar pop song story of courtship: “When we first met I couldn’t believe my eyes/ I had to try harder than those other guys/ Babe, you’re so sweet, it can’t be true/ It’s so easy gettin’ along with you.”
The punchy horn parts on the various tracks further emphasize the party feel, which may have ultimately been to the band members’ disappointment. They wanted people to know there was more to Fleshtones vs. Reality than met the ear.
“I don’t understand why we’re always accused of being so mindless,” keyboardist and vocalist Peter Zaremba said. “That’s okay, because it’s good to have fun, but some of the lyrics are pointed. The beat is so happy that people just don’t realize it.”
997. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Mainstream (1987)
It’s folly, of course, to suppose lyrics provide insight to a performers inner being rather than simply demonstrate facility as a storyteller. That concession duly made, I do suspect the secret to Lloyd Cole — at least the version of the singer-songwriter who existed circa 1987 — is found somewhere amidst the lines of “My Bag”: “My head’s swimming with poetry and prose/ Excuse me one moment whilst I powder my nose.”
“My Bag” is the lead track on Mainstream, the third and final album Cole recorded with backing band the Commotions. Recording the album was an arduous affair, beginning with the band’s inability to settle on a producer. Once they connected with Ian Stanley (who, among other releases, had pitched on Songs from the Big Chair, the breakthrough album from Tears for Fears), things improved only marginally. The budget swelled and the recording process took months, trying the patience of various band members. Keyboardist Blair Cowan quit before the album was released and others were eyeing the door.
To a degree, Cole sounds done with his bandmates, too. The album is lush and elegant. It’s the product of a intellectually engaged and somewhat emotionally distant crooner, like a less caustically self-regarding Morrissey or (invoking someone who started making records years later) a more sincere Father John Misty. He’s a solo artist waiting to happen, and that’s precisely where he headed after Mainstream, releasing his first album free of Commotions in 1990.
Mainstream is muddled at times, but Cole’s skills as a songwriter are real. “Sean Penn Blues” is driving and wryly funny (“If I trash this TV then I know I will feel better), “Jennifer She Said” is richly intriguing, and “29” is a luxe version of the romanticization of the forlorn that was Paul Westerberg’s specialty. The songs are sometimes overdressed, but their bones are enviable.
Am I correct about “My Bag”? Surely not. Cole explained the song was about a coked-up New York stockbroker, with the details largely cribbed from the Jay McInerney novel Bright Lights, Big City. When I hear “powder my nose” as an expression of an affected, precious soul, it’s more a marker of my naïveté about pretty basic drug lingo rather than Cole’s abiding sensibility. Cole wasn’t revealing himself literally through the lyrics, but his skill and sensibility are crystal clear.
To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.