916. Babys, Union Jacks (1980)
Union Jacks, the fourth album by the U.K. rock band the Babys, was the first one they recorded fully without founding member Michael Corby. The guitarist/keyboard player was ousted during the recording process for the preceding studio effort, Head First, released in early 1979. After adding two new members to the roster — keyboardist Jonathan Cain and bassist Ricky Phillips — the band went into the studio with producer Keith Olsen, fresh off Foreigner’s Double Vision and Santana’s Marathon. The Babys were clearly aiming for a certain slicked-up rock sound. They definitely got it.
Album opener “Back on My Feet Again” is pure cheese, declaring a revived endurance befitting a band that’s endured some personnel tumult. The guitar lines sound as if they’re coated in shellac and the keyboard flit in and out like birds chirping through a vocoder. Lead singer John Waite preens his way through the vocals, practically every emotionally intense twist of his head somehow coming through. Whether great or awful (and I’ll admit I can land on either assessment, depending on when I hear it), the track is absolutely of the era. Released as a single, it became the third and final Top 40 hit in the U.S.
The rest of the album is largely most of the same, big rock tracks that gleam and shimmer and don’t leave a mark. The jabbing drum beats and waterfall synth lines on “In Your Eyes” at least provide a little different texture, but that’s a rarity. More tracks adhere to the model of “Anytime,” which is a more plodding version of what the Kings were doing at about the same time, and “Midnight Rendezvous” which was featured in the ribald comedy Up the Academy, dually notable for its positioning as the first cinematic effort associated with Mad magazine and standing as a rare instance of director Robert Downey, Sr. trying to play nice with a major studio. The latter track is one of the stronger cuts, but it also betrays Waite’s propensity for inane bluntness when he growls “I really wanna fuck you” on the fade out.
In general, they lyrics are the most consistently regrettable part of Union Jacks. On the mid-tempo “True Love Confession,” Waite sings, “I try to call ya/ But I only get your service/ You’re the Playmate of the Year/ So I guess that I deserve it.” That garbled nonsense is still superior to the words in the incredibly bizarre “Jesus, Are You There?,” in which Waite’s religious questing manifests as requests for help paying the rent, getting a girl, and being taken “on a cruise around the world.” There’s a clear oversight in the litany of prayers. Waite and his compatriots mainly needed heavenly assistance with their songwriting.
915. Grateful Dead, Go to Heaven (1980)
Even among their most faithful fans, the Grateful Dead long had a reputation for transcendent live shows (abetted by plentiful pharmaceutical and herbal enhancements, of course) and studio albums that are mediocre at best. When it came to the efforts crafted in the recording studio, the blasé wasn’t always merited. American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead, both released in 1970, are sturdy as can be, and even later, more uneven efforts, such as From the Mars Hotel, have their charms. But, man alive, when the Grateful Dead records are bad, they are brutally bad. Go to Heaven is bad.
Go to Heaven peaks with opening track “Alabama Getaway,” a satisfying, straight-ahead song that approaches rock ‘n’ roll purity, up to and including a runtime that stretches just a few seconds over three-and-a-half minutes. Though hardly the only instance of economy on the record, it’s absolutely the first and last time the band is tight and focused. Even the thirty-seven second track “Antwerp’s Placebo (The Plumber),” an experimental goof officially co-written by drummers Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann, feels like it goes on forever, its indulgence as unpleasant as a summer cold. When the band actually stretches out, as on the nearly seven-minute “Althea,” the drowsy quality of the track becomes unbearable.
Go to Heaven was the first album with keyboardist/vocalist Brent Mydland, and he contributes two songs, the Queen-on-heavy-barbiturates “Far From Me” and the tinkling “Easy to Love You.” Neither is particularly distinguished, but the new guy does better than the venerable Bob Weir. With his usual songwriting partner, John Perry Barlow, Weir contributes the most immediately loathsome material. “Feel Like a Stranger” is so aimless that it’s barely a song, and “Lost Sailor” sounds like the band is trying to singlehandedly invent, perfect, and bury soft rock.
As with other maligned examples of the band’s studio output, there have been overtures in recent years to reevaluate Go to Heaven, casting the material in a more favorable light. Successful or not as those efforts may be, there’s one aspect of the record that is unlikely to ever escape scorn.
“It plays better now than it did back then,” Kreutzmann once said. “That’s still no excuse for the cover, though – all six of us, dressed all in white disco suits against a white background.”
914. Neil Young, Comes a Time (1978)
Following a small string of albums that likely confused his audience — including the complicated Zuma and the crazy stew of American Stars ‘n Bars — Neil Young returned to the homespun folk-rock that characterized the biggest hit of his solo career, the 1972 album Harvest. If it was a gambit, it worked. Comes a Time was Young first album since Harvest to climb into the Top 5 on the Billboard album chart. As it happened, though, the person who bought the most copies of Comes a Time was Young himself.
The original master tape of the album got damaged (Young recalled to Rolling Stone that “it went through the airport or something”) and Young approved the tape for final pressing without realizing the problem. Once he listened to it, he realized the high frequencies were missing. Since he signed off on the records being made, but he couldn’t stand the thought of inferior product being sold under his name, Young made an agreement with his record label to purchase 200,000 copies of the album so they could start over. He reportedly used the vinyl to shingle the roof of a barn on his property.
“I don’t like throwing money around,” Young said. “But I wasn’t going to have this album circulating around the world in bad quality.”
The songs on Comes a Time are gentle and intricate, reflecting the more meditative side of Young. “I know things are gonna change/ But I can’t say bad or good,” he sings on “Look Out for My Love,” and that about sums it up. There’s a similar neighborly simplicity to “Field of Opportunity,” which the farming life as a metaphor for relationships (“”There ain’t no way of telling/ Where these seeds/ Will rise or when/ I’ll just wait/ Around ’til springtime/ And then, I’ll find a friend”). Or maybe it’s completely literal. That would be in keeping with the album’s fuss-free vibe.
The pleasant amble “Four Strong Winds” became a minor hit for Young (peaking at #61, it was his first song to appear on the Billboard Hot 100 in four years), but it was another song that made a significant impact on the charts, albeit not in his version. Nicolette Larson, who contributed harmony vocals on a couple tracks, took Young’s “Lotta Love,” spruced it up, and put it right at the top of her 1978 debut album, Nicolette. Released as a single, it made it all the way into the U.S. Top 10.
913. The Smiths, Rank (1988)
The Smiths were in ruins when the live album Rank was released. The relationship between lead singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr, which had long ago strayed far from the convivial, soured to such a degree that the two couldn’t stand speaking to each other, a rift that continues to this day. They still owed their label an album, so a concert previously aired on BBC1 Radio was dragged out. Morrissey excised some of the band’s best loved songs from the final track list. “How Soon is Now?,” as prime example, was performed that night, but was left off Rank. And it seems to me that Johnny Marr’s guitar is suspiciously low in the mix on the album, but I could be mistaken.
As captured on the record, much of the live performance is dutiful, or even aggressively disinterested. “Ask” is introduced as the band’s new single, but Morrissey already seems bored with it, overenunciating some words and slopping others out. He engages in other vocal tomfoolery on other songs, such as the growl that tuns into a gargle on “Still Ill” Rather than give the material a loose immediacy, it undercuts the strength of songs. The output of the Smiths is too strong to be trashed completely by onstage sabotage (the punk drive of “London” works especially well in the live setting), but it’s telling when Morrissey is actual alert to the moment, as when the band segues from a cover of Elvis Presley’s “His Latest Flame” into “Rusholme Ruffians.” By most accounts, Morrissey’s insistence on covering old pop hits was the final straw that broke Marr’s back, so the lead singer’s evident pleasure at aping the King makes sense. Even then, it’s more a curiosity than an instance of album suddenly, briefly getting good.
The title Rank comes from British slang for masturbation, a compromise Morrissey settled on after the label rejected his original choice: The Smiths in Heat. There’s another definition of the word, straight from the dictionary, that also suits the album. Rank stinks.
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.