College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #920 to #917

plant pictures

920. Robert Plant, Pictures at Eleven (1982)

Realistically, there might not have been much time left for Led Zeppelin, even before tragedy arrived in the form of drummer John Bonham’s demise. Although the band released albums at a steady clip throughout the nineteen-seventies (though no one was championing the likes of Presence or In Through the Out Door as on par with Led Zeppelin’s earlier, highly influential work), by the end of the decade they hadn’t toured in several years, in large part because of a cascade of misfortune that began when lead singer Robert Plant’s five-year-old son, Karac, died unexpectedly.

After Bonham died, the dissolution of Led Zeppelin was formally announced within three months. Already no stranger to mourning, Plant initially retreated, taking solace in family and connecting with his former bandmates from time to time in order to weigh in on the stray material that would make up the contractually obligated final Led Zeppelin album, Coda. Plant eventually started venturing out, developing a backing band he dubbed the Honeydrippers and playing small shows. Finding a symbiotic relationship with guitarist Robbie Blunt — who’d toiled with several bands of middling renown, such as Bronco and Stan Webb’s Chicken Shack — Plant began working on the songs that eventually made up Pictures at Eleven, his solo debut.

The shadow of his former band was formidably long and therefore difficult to escape, but Plant did his damnedest to forge a new sound. He obviously couldn’t — and perhaps didn’t want to — cast aside the legacy completely. “Slow Dancer” comes close to the familiar Led Zeppelin bluesy murk, and “Like I’ve Never Been Gone” effortlessly recalls the band’s pretentious balladry. The vocals might have had the familiar screeching steel effect, but Blunt, while capable, was no Jimmy Page. The distance between the two guitarists is at its most evident when tracks strain toward the epic, such as “Worse than Detroit,” a decent three minute rock song that lasts six minutes.

It’s more interesting when Plant ventures into unfamiliar — and creatively risky — territory, even when he’s not wholly successful. “Burning Down One Side” tries to bridge the gap between seventies hard rock and eighties new wave, but Plant’s keening vocals are an ill fit with the tinny music. Better is “Pledge Pin,” which derives a lot of its off-kilter charm from a rubbery rhythm. A big rock star awash in riches and tailed by an enduring audience that wanted little more than rehashes of past glories, Plant had little motivation to drastically transform himself for a new era. The intriguing fringes of Pictures of Eleven suggest it could have been exciting if he’d undergone the shift anyway.



shriekback jam

919. Shriekback, Jam Science (1984)

In the mid-nineteen-eighties, bands were still susceptible to accusations of selling out, merely for taking the established steps of upward mobility that were afforded them in their chosen profession. For all the aspirations toward pure artistry, these musicians were still trying to make a living. It’s noble to scrape together shifts at the chip shop to subsidize time with guitars, keyboards, mates, and a recording studio, but it’s surely nicer to pay the bills with robustly paying gigs and record sales.

With their sophomore full-length release, Jam Science, London-based band Shriekback carried the whole story of treacherous commercial aspiration within one album. Well, it was actually two albums. A major part of the stark contrast between prickly iconoclasm and aspirational acquiescence was contained in the existence of two versions of Jam Science. The first was released by the independent label Y Records, the band’s original home, in part because of aggravation that Shriekback had jumped ship to the big leagues by signing to Arista Records. Consisting of unpolished studio material and released without the band’s consent, the Y Records pressing of Jam Science was almost literally a parting shot, among the final releases from a small label in the process of folding.

Released several months later, the Arista Records version of Jam Science is burnished by era-specific studio polish, the jagged edges of earlier Shriekback material buffed away in favor of devilish electronic pop pitched precisely for the dance floor. To illustrate how close the band might have been to cuddly crossover, “Achtung” sounds a little like INXS’s “Need You Tonight” if it never made the pivot into rock song territory. Similarly, the restive “Mercy Dash” and the zombie disco of “Under the Lights” are made for the coolest club at the crumbling outer edge of a flattened planet. They’re hardly hits in waiting, but they have a sparking energy that anticipate a version of Top 40 radio that is as exciting as it is improbable.

The material on Jam Science is also a little too viscously eerie to expect it ever could have transcended Shriekback’s already cemented cult hero status. “Hand on My Heart” was a minor dance hit, but it is airy and spooky, as likely to clear a floor as it is to send people scurrying to its flashing lights. There a hint of Robyn Hitchcock’s loopy menace to “My Careful Hands,” and “Suck” is brash and cacophonous, fading out just as it becomes a mild endurance test. If Shriekback was trying to deliver a hit to their new label — and at the time they acknowledged they were — they were admirably holding on to some of their creatively combative instincts in the process. That might not have been good business, but it make for fine music.



bruce Nebraska

918. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982)

“These songs were the opposite of the rock music I’d been writing,” Bruce Springsteen recalled in Born to Run, his 2016 memoir. “They were restrained, still on the surface, with a world of moral ambiguity and unease below. The tension running through the music’s core was the thin line between stability and that moment when the things that connect you to your world, your job, your family, your friends, the love and grace in your heart, fail you.”

The songs he refers to are those that largely made up Nebraska, the album that completely refuted every bit of the legend he’d spent a decade cultivating, including the booming rock sound as big as the stadiums he was finally beginning to play, following the breakthrough success of his 1980 double album, The River. An artist who made records of painstaking polish, Springsteen opted to build Nebraska out of recordings intended to be nothing more than slightly more robust demos. He recorded most of it in a single session with his guitar tech, Mike Batlan, at the controls of a newly purchased Teac Tascam 144 four-track cassette recorder. Springsteen’s bedroom was set up as a makeshift studio. According to Springsteen lore, he labored to make the songs work with the E Street band, recording full studio versions with mounting dissatisfaction before deciding the original, starkly performed material on the cassette was what he wanted to release.

On Nebraska, the romanticized American dream Springsteen previously peddled — in which even the setbacks were marked with aching poetry — was subsumed by a vision of a land broken beyond repair and citizens staring down an impenetrable brick wall that stretched to the clouds. The death traps and suicide raps were triumphant. Emphasizing the redrawn map, the album opens with two songs that take titles from geography: “Nebraska” and “Atlantic City,” the former borrowing details from the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and the latter mirroring a decaying city in a depiction of inescapable personal dismay (“Well, I got a job and I put my money away/ But I got debts that no honest man can pay”). These are problems that can’t be outrun.

Throughout his long, vaunted career, Springsteen’s rock god showmanship often operated at odds with his songwriting, obscuring the insight with bombast, either in the accompanying musicianship or in his tendency to render emotion in swooping bands of paint rather than tender intricacy. Nebraska counters that, revealing and accentuating the poignancy that was always embedded in Springsteen’s work, just sometimes too deeply to notice under the sax solos and paeans to motoring through the night. In a more typical Springsteen rendering, “Mansion on the Hill” could be trite, “Used Cars” too jokey, “My Father’s House” unbearably maudlin. Stripped to the studs, the songs are brutally powerful.

Springsteen, too, found his way to telling others’ stories in a manner largely new to him. Even when he was projecting himself onto a New Jersey life he’d never have, his previous songs largely stayed in a safe zone of rock ‘n’ roll feeling and variants on realized or dashed love familiar from countless pop hits of eras past. There’s a grimly determined novelist present on Nebraska, finding universal truths in narratives of striking specificity. When Sean Penn later adapted “Highway Patrolman” into a feature film, the choice felt as a natural as taking a short story from page to screen.

At the time, Nebraska was well-regarded, but also seen as an odd diversion, straying dangerously from an established sound finally connecting with wider audiences. The River yielded Springsteen’s first Top 10 hit and landed him back-to-back Top 40 singles for the first time. The material on Nebraska was drastically far-removed from that which was just starting to click. On the album charts, though, Nebraska was a reasonable hit, peaking at #3, and both its singles received solid airplay on rock radio. And Springsteen’s next album was Born in the U.S.A., a true blockbuster that decisively proved he hadn’t hurt his momentum one bit.



surfers pussyhorse

917. Butthole Surfers, Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986)

A band that opts for the name Butthole Surfers clearly isn’t overly concerned about cowing to the strictures of commercial success. Upon the release of the band’s sophomore album, Rembrandt Pussyhorse, it was still an open question for some college radio stations as to whether or not the group could be plainly identified on the air with incurring the wrath of the FCC. “Pussyhorse” wasn’t great, either.

Aligned with that disregard for propriety, Rembrandt Pussyhorse is downright prankish in its abrasive experimentalism. The ridiculous cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman” is the ideal representation of the album’s inner being (and I’ll bet it was the most played track on college radio), offering reluctant hints on the familiar that are roughly eradicated by sonically ugly studio effects, ruthlessly manipulated vocals, and rampant deconstructionist tomfoolery. Butthole Surfers, it seems clear, don’t care if anyone actually like this stuff, but they want the listeners who opt out to feel like overly squeamish quitters.

The album is a series of patience-triers of oscillating difficulty level. “Sea Ferring” sounds like a gothic horror story yanked through a post-post-post-punk filter (“Like it or not/ You’ll scream again, again, again”), and “Strangers Die Everyday” is the song played ceaselessly on the Baldwin Bravura located in the rotating center of Hell’s waiting room. “Perry,” which adds lyrics to a warped version of the Perry Mason TV theme song, is at least interesting as the incubator from which King Missile emerged. Listening to all of this, it is absolutely mind-boggling that Butthole Surfers would land themselves a Top 40 single one decade later


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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