College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #972 to #969

edmunds twangin

972. Dave Edmunds, Twangin… (1981)

Dave Edmunds was already a longterm veteran of the pop music salt mines when he delivered Twangin…, his sixth proper solo album and one more paver stone in a path of rock ‘n’ roll proselytizing that stretched back over a decade. Like most efforts he signed his name to — especially around this era, arguably his creative peak — the album simultaneously demonstrated he deserved rock stardom (or at least a loving embrace from rock radio) and precisely why that result was likely to be forever elusive. A master of finessing the classic structures of rock ‘n’ into slightly more modern sounds, Edmunds was too slick for the purists and too classicist for the restless kids.

To be accurate, Welsh-born Edmunds did well on the U.K. charts, where early rock ‘n’ roll sounds basically never went out of style. While hardly a consistent hitmaker, Edmunds had four separate Top 10 hits in the U.K. across the span of the nineteen-seventies, including as recently as 1979. And he was an relatively early signee for Swan Song Records, the label started by Led Zeppelin, giving him a certain veneer of cool.

Twangin… was Edmunds last album for Swan Song (the label ceased operations two years later), and its status as a covers album gives it a whiff of contractual obligation. The record itself suggests greater commitment, though. In making his song selections, Edmunds evidences an admirable predilection for more under-celebrated songwriters, such as John Hiatt, whose sterling “Something Happens” opens the album. As with other strong examples of the form, Edmunds isn’t using the covers to generate a de facto borrowed hits collection so much as he’s exploring his own sensibilities as an artist through favorite music.

Edmunds sometimes manages to bring multiple influences to bear on a track in a way that entirely enlivens it, as with “It’s Been So Long,” originally recorded by Brinsley Schwarz. Edmunds juices the tempo and gives it his best Buddy Holly jaunty trill, remarkable making the track seem as if it exists outside of a cultural timeline, standing instead as all of rock ‘n’ roll collapsed into dandy two minutes. Even when Edmunds adheres more closely to the original (as on “Three Time Loser,” first recorded by Wilson Pickett), he honors the ancestral take on the song, but firmly makes it his own.

Almost inevitably, there are trouble spots. “Almost Saturday Night” hews so closely to the original, including in the way Edmunds apes John Fogerty’s vocal cadences, that it barely has a reason for being. And “The Race is On,” eagerly touted on the single release as a collaboration with the Stray Cats — then a true sensation on the charts on both side of the Atlantic — is a blandly rocked-up pass at a country song best known as a hit for George Jones.

Twangin… ushered in a time for transition for Edmunds. After this album, he jumped to Columbia Records. And it was also the last time he played with Rockpile, the group of ringers that released one album under their own name, but more commonly served as the studio band for solo albums by Edmunds and Nick Lowe. Even if change was afoot, Edmunds was a true believer. There was more good stuff to come.



van wavelength

971. Van Morrison, Wavelength (1978)

Wavelength is likely the closest Van Morrison was ever going to come to making a disco record. I doubt that was his intent, but the electronically-pulsed dance floor music was inescapably in the air during all of 1978. When the Irish troubadour was recording his tenth studio album, the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” was on a dominant run atop both sides of the Atlantic, and Wavelength landed in record stores as A Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” was enjoy almost a full month on as the #1 song in the U.S. Later scorn notwithstanding, disco was the present and seemingly the future of pop music.

The tracks of Wavelength could hardly have slipped onto the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack without stirring confusion, but they have the feel of mindful craftsmanship to make them a comfortable addition to radio playlists. Morrison’s lush, howling soulfulness is in place, but the music is awash in synthesizers in a way that seems like a node to the times rather than a natural extension of the artist’s well-established sonic technique. “Natalia” and the title cut are awash in so much studio dressing that Morrison almost gets lot in the flourishes, an almost inconceivable outcome for the one of the biggest voices in rock history.

The album might seem flawed — or at least disappointing — outside of its original context, but at the time it proved the soundness of Morrison’s commercial instincts, a crucial revival after a few fallow years that reportedly found him contemplating early retirement. Wavelength was Morrison’s best selling and fastest selling album to that point, and “Wavelength” skimmed close to the Billboard Top 40.


kissing naked

970. Kissing the Pink, Naked (1983)

According to the members of Kissing the Pink, their band name referred to either snooker or oral sex. It depended on who was asking. That instinct for the opportunistic — evasively innocent at some times, eagerly naughty at others — offers decent insight as to the general thrust of the band’s music. Dolled up with gentle synth pop come-ons, swoony vocals, lyrics somehow both plain and puzzling, and other signature elements of new wave, Kissing the Pink could have been constructed in a lab to muscle their way onto MTV.

Naked was Kissing the Pink’s debut album, released a few years after the band formed in London. It opens with “The Last Film,” which also served as a single. Against a military drill drumbeat, punctuating by electrified pipe whistles, the track commits to an battle hymn ferocity, lyrics shouted as much as sung in a way that mirrored the stridency of Tears for Fears, who released their debut album the same year. That anthemic quality extends to other tracks on the album, such as the slightly anxious “Big Man Restless” (which also finds room for a cheesy sax solo, the recurrent herpes of eighties rock) or even the single “Watching Their Eyes,” which suggests the sort of song a less-committed Bonnie Tyler might conjure up.

Kissing the Pink does better when they get a little weirder. The fevered futurism of “Frightened in France” might not be genius, but it’s at least interesting. Album closer “Mr. Blunt” goes a long way on an appropriation of Bow Wow Wow’s percussive energy, and the the shiny electro-pop of “Desert Song” could have appeared unaltered on the latest Arcade Fire album, and immediately stood out as one of the stronger tracks in the process. Whatever other mixed feelings I might have about Naked, that’s impressive for a track released thirty-five years ago.


railway reunion

969. The Railway Children, Reunion Wilderness (1987)

There were only so many Bunnymen to go around in the late nineteen-eighties, but the need for chiming, swirling guitar pop remained high. Luckily, there were heroes like the Railway Children prepared to step in and fill the gap.

To be fair, the quartet from Manchester doesn’t sound all that much like the Liverpudlians who were one of the most dominant college radio bands of the decade, but the Railway Children did deliver a brand of tender, innocuous, ever do British rock music that spoke to a certain tousled-haired type of student programmer. The music on Reunion Wilderness, the band’s debut album, somewhat anticipates the comfort tune Britpop boom of the early nineties, but it’s even closer to the genial, determinedly non-confrontational guitar journeys Poi Dog Pondering was developing at about the same time. But the Reunion Wilderness is lacking the hints of worldly wanderlust that made Poi Dog Pondering distinctive. The Railway Children show no impulse for ever changing lanes.

“Careful” has an agreeable enough shimmy to it, and “Big Hands of Freedom” builds nicely as it explores the brave face that often accompanies heartache. “Brighter” has one of those soft synthesized xylophone openings that could only exist — or at least prosper — in the nineteen-eighties, then it locks into a simple and satisfying hook. Like much of pop, the whole album seems to turn on the axis of yearning. Without fuss (or, to be less kind, much innovation), the Railway Children deliver on the basics.


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

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