College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #952 to #949

mccartney tug

952. Paul McCartney, Tug of War (1982)

Although it obviously caused far less fan trauma than the band dissolution that took place roughly a decade earlier, the breakup of Wings should probably be seen as one of the pivotal career developments for Paul McCartney. The band could reasonably be viewed as a little more than a guide for the former Beatle to advance a solo career, especially once the billing was modified to put his name first, but bringing an end to the musical collective was still a statement. Tug of War was therefore the opening salvo to the third phase of McCartney’s storied career.

In looking forward, McCartney also drew on his legendary past, recruiting famed Beatles producer George Martin to preside over the album. Beginning with the layers upon layers of orchestral sounds and studio polish on the album’s opening and title cut, McCartney reclaims the sweeping pop exaltation he co-created in the late nineteen-sixties. And the horns in “Wanderlust” are so luxuriously nostalgic that it’s as if Sgt. Pepper got the band back together.

Appropriately, though, it’s not a purely retrospective exercise. McCartney strives to remain current. Those results are more mixed. It’s entertaining — if not particularly enlightening — to hear McCartney try out futuristic funk on “What’s That You’re Doing?,” the less famous of the album’s two collaborations with Stevie Wonder. The other, the painfully sincere racial harmony ballad “Ebony and Ivory,” topped the Billboard chart for seven weeks. The limp disco of “Dress Me Up as a Robber” argues against McCartney’s desire to stretch himself.

Admirable as the ambition might be, McCartney is at his best when he just leans into his incomparable skill for crafting a great, straightforward pop single, as on “Take It Away.” In many respects, the song isn’t all that special or inventive, but it is melodic, catchy, and endearing in its lyrical depiction of the plain pleasure of playing music all night long. It’s just McCartney doing what he does best, and his best is well beyond most.





951. Squirrel Bait, Skag Heaven (1987)

There are many ways to develop the sort of tension that can spur great music. The members of Squirrel Bait evidently found themselves scrapping over a divide between jocks and nerds among their ranks. It’s a matter of opinion as to how explicitly the scrap is evident in their music, though they certainly display a Hüsker Dü-style mix of punk messiness and pop tunefulness on their second and final album, Skag Heaven.

The album is immediately great, kicking off with “Kid Dynamite,” using impressive volume and sterling songcraft to relay a tale of a rough evening marked by a knife fight. In general, that approach is present on track after track, with equally fine results. “Too Close to the Fire” is galloping hard rock, “Virgil’s Return” is crunchy like a gravel road, and “Slake Train Coming” has a jacked intensity. The whole band is strong, but Skag Heaven features impressive rock drumming by Ben Daughtrey, especially on “Choose Yr Poison” and the album closing cover of Phil Ochs’s “Tape from California.”

The schisms in the group may have elevated the quality of the songs, but they caused other problems. The divide identified by the band members continued to cause issues, especially as the rest of life beckoned. And when a couple members wanted to head off the college, the band was done.



steve howe album

950. Steve Howe, The Steve Howe Album (1979)

At a time when prog rock still reigned, albeit with a little less assurance than it had a few years later, certain fans couldn’t get enough. That may be contributed to the mid-nineteen-seventies decision to put the band Yes on hold in order to let individual members pursue solo projects. The more of the band’s jazzy, fulsome rock available, the better. Or so it likely seemed.

Some of the member were more prolific than others. Guitarist Steve Howe released his first solo album, Beginnings, in 1975. It took four years before the follow-up would hit stores. Given the plainspoken title The Steve Howe Album, the release is an odd mash-up of the prog rock for which he was famed and other genres of music that were percolating to prominence at the time. For example, the album includes the the bubbly pop-country goofing of “Cactus Boogie.” And then there’s “All’s a Chord,” an airier version of the decade’s typical big FM sound dramatics, as if Howe is auditioning for the prog rock version of Xanadu.

On the second half of the album, Howe really stretches out and seems to be more explicitly and genuinely demonstrating his capability to handle full on orchestral music, notably on the epic “Double Rondo,” which is orchestrated by Andrew Jackman, and then on the album closing take on Vivaldi’s “Concerto in D (Second Movement).” At the time, rock musician wasn’t viewed as a viable longterm career. Convincingly or not, Howe seems to be trying out a different avenue.

The album did well enough, but Howe definitely seemed more at ease as a member of a band. Yes would go through a little bit of confusion in the following few years. When they broke up and quickly reunited, Howe didn’t join them, opting instead to form a couple of supergroups who would romp across the eighties to solid commercial success and mounting critical derision.


neil hawks

949. Neil Young, Hawks & Doves (1980)

There’s a reason Neil Young has released so many albums across his career. He has a lot of material, including loads of it just waiting for a home. For Young’s 1980 release, Hawks & Doves, around half the album was comprised of tracks he’d first develop across the second half of the seventies, at least a couple intended for the 1975 album Homegrown. The rest were pulled together specifically for the new record, though the level of focus was likely impacted by family medical concerns around his newly born son, Ben, who like his older brother was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

The older songs are, perhaps understandable, like almost anything from the quiet, folk-tinged pages of his Young’s repertoire, like the low strum of “Little Wing” and the clomping rambler “The Old Homestead.”  The newer material, spread across the second side, skewed more to straight country, one of many instances of restlessly coopting music genres Young would engage in across the nineteen eighties. As with many of those later albums, Hawks & Doves had limited appeal. Unlike Young’s prior two albums, Hawks & Doves failed to chart in the Top 10.



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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