College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #904 to #901

cure whispers

904. The Cure, Japanese Whispers (1983)

Somewhat unexpectedly, 1983 ushered in an era in which the Cure could accurately be described as hitmakers, at least on their side of the Atlantic. The transformation began with the 1982 single “Let’s Go to Bed,” a sweetly ribald seduction that Cure leader Robert Smith viewed simultaneously as a satire on the insipid pop songs that regularly made headway on the U.K. charts and an opportunity for the band to shed their doom merchants image.

Despite its enduring status as a Cure touchstone, “Let’s Go To Bed” was initially only a minor success, but it arguably set the stage for the kinder, gentler version of the band to push two singles into the U.K. Top 15 during the following calendar year. The cheerier personality was so complete — and so embraced — that the British music press occasionally took an alarmist tack, warning fans that the turn to brightness was sure to be fleeting. On the occasion of the release of Japanese Whispers, a collection of the peppier hit singles and associated material, Sounds magazine issued a warning: “Beware! All the signs are that Smith intends to return to the plodding ground of past work for the next album, so get happy while you can.”

As the title of the compilation suggests, Smith originally assembled the album solely for the Japanese market. The record label overruled him, though, obviously seeing some enticing sales potential in packaging together the Cure’s strongest performers to that point. Certainly having those two hits —  the beautifully bedazzled “The Walk” and the resolutely playful “The Love Cats” — one the same album was useful. Otherwise, Japanese Whispers is as scattershot as any release of similar origin. The tracks were from the same timespan, but that doesn’t automatically mean they belong together on something purporting to be a cohesive whole. There’s plenty to enjoy on the album, including the rubbery, robotic synth lines of “The Dream” and the loopy modern lounge of “Speak My Language.” And “The Upstairs Room,” awash is dreamy gloom disco (“I’m sure I asked you to stay/ But now you’re gone/ And so I feel the grey/ Pulse in my head”), argues that Smith hadn’t entirely jettisoned his glam goth musical vernacular.

It’s undeniable, though, that the Cure were in a state of flux at the end of 1983. The lineup was so unsettled that the next full-length studio effort — The Top, released in 1984 — was essentially a Smith solo album in disguise. They weren’t full-fledged college radio darlings just yet, but the possibility is clearly bubbling up. In its best moments, Japanese Whispers suggests such status is all but inevitable.



bowie never

903. David Bowie, Never Let Me Down (1987)

Never Let Me Down arrived two months after David Bowie’s fortieth birthday. In 1987, rock ‘n’ roll artists weren’t supposed to hang around that long, creating new music and insisting on continued cultural relevance. By the same age, Elvis Presley was a parody of his former self, rumbling out mildewed hits on a Las vegas stage, and most other artists whose birthdays cakes had candle counts similarly approach fire hazard levels had passed onto the semi-retirement of the oldies circuit. Bowie was doing his best to defy the expected descent, putting out a new record and mounting an ambitious world tour. Unfortunately, the product didn’t make a good case for the sustainability of Bowie’s creative vision. Even the retrospective magnificence bestowed upon the bulk of Bowie’s output hasn’t rescued Never Let Me Down, which is still widely considered one of the low points — maybe the low point — of his career.

Bowie was working with many of the same partners he’d enlisted when producing Iggy Pop’s 1986 album, Blah Blah Blah. The album was intended to be vast in its creative scope.” The album was reflective in a way, because it covers every style that I’ve ever written in, and also all the influences I’ve had in rock,” Bowie said at the time. That mining of history might have been the catalyst for the songs on the record, but it has only the barest discernible presence on the finished product. Layered with the worst of nineteen-eighties studio indulgences, the sound of Never Let Me Down is rock candy that’s further atrophied to the hardness of the strongest steel. And the songs are stuffed with so much sonic ephemera that they become exhausting within seconds. Lead single “Day-In Day-Out” is a prime offender, projecting rock bombast with a cyborg stiffness.

The most charitable assessment of Never Let Me Down is that the production tics of the era took over, demolishing numbers that might have been enjoyable in a different configuration. That theory occasionally holds up, but it’s highly dependent on where the needle drops on the spinning disc. The title cut is a nice song swamped by overproduction that puts it somewhere between the Blow Monkeys and Starship. Just as often, though, the foundations are equally rotten, as on the gloppy “Beat of Your Drum” which is distinguished by some of the worst lyrics of Bowie’s career (“I like the smell of your flesh/ I like the dirt that you dish/ I like the clothes that you wear/ I’d like to beat on your drum”). “87 and Cry” is empty puffery, and “Glass Spider” carries echoes from Bowie’s Labyrinth turn in the fairy tale portent of the spoken word introduction, given way to a galloping rock abstractions.

The album concludes with “Bang Bang,” a song which first appeared on Pop’s 1981 album, Party. Seemingly tacked on as an afterthought — presumably as part of Bowie’s charitable policy of stocking his releases with tracks that would earn some songwriting residuals for his buddy Pop — it encompasses the misguided confidence of this album perfectly. Bowie was of course a strong enough artist that there were genuine triumphs to come, but with Never Let Me Down he was making choices for little reason beyond the simple fact that he was allowed to do whatever he wanted — adding, adding, adding until he had a big, gnarly cluster of slop.




902. Various Artists, Live! For Life (1986)

According to the back cover of the compilation album Live! For Life, all the proceeds from the I.R.S. Records release were donated to the AMC Cancer Research Center. “Through research programs in the laboratory, clinic and community, AMC scientists seek to develop more effective methods of cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment,” the description notes, before specifically name-checking I.R.S. Records chief Miles Copeland as the magnanimous soul who rummaged through the label’s stockpile of unreleased material to find ten tracks that might prompt music fans to provide a little charity with a purchase.

As the album’s title implies, most of the tracks are from live concert recordings. To the credit of Copeland and the other overseers of the record, they aren’t especially coy in their selections. General Public and the Go-Go’s are represented by significant hits (“Tenderness” and “We Got the Beat,” respectively), and Squeeze rounds out the album with an appealingly relaxed version of “Tempted.” Since R.E.M. was likely the biggest act on the label at the time, they’re present with the notable enticement of a previously unreleased song, “Ages of You,” making its first appearance on record, a full year before it was the centerpiece of the discards collection Dead Letter Office.

Nothing here is so revelatory or essential that it will have much appeal to any but the established fans of the featured acts. A 1975 Bob Marley and the Wailers performance of “Lively Up Yourself” strikes me as numbing in its redundancy, but I’m sure it causes the reggae legend’s true believers to sway along with beatific grins. The more egregious additions come from the Copeland family tree, official and extended. The album opens with a the drab studio effort “Love Lessons,” by Miles’s brother Stewart Copeland, teamed with Derek Colt. And Stewart’s bandmate in the Police, Sting contributes some of his insufferable jazz-rock riffing on “I Been Down So Long,” recorded on the tour in support of The Dream of the Blue Turtles tour. At least it’s all for a good cause.



billy help

901. Billy Bragg, Help Save the Youth of America (1988)

Billy Bragg includes a note to record-buyers on the back of the EP Help Save the Youth of America. “Beloved listener, well may ask, ‘Why is this limey whining about our country, when, it’s got nothing to do with him?'” writes Bragg. “I have no vote in your Presidential election yet its outcome will directly effect my future and the future of millions of other people around the world. Forgive me for putting this immense responsibility on your shoulders, but I implore you to take part in the democratic process this year however imperfect it may be. Remember, when you elect a President, you are electing a President for all of us. Please be more careful this time.” The voting population, as it turned out, weren’t careful enough.

Released in North America to coincide with a U.S. tour, Help Save the Youth of America provided a sampling of Bragg’s political tune-slinging, supplemented with supporting documentation urging voter registration. At around the same time, he was unexpectedly on top of the U.K. charts with a cover of the Beatles’ “She Leaving Home,” culled from the compilation album Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father. Bragg’s cut on the flip of a double A-side with Wet Wet Wet’s take on “With a Little Help From My Friends.” On the basis of radio airplay (and the string of Top 10 hits they’d enjoyed the previous year), it was the Scottish quartet rather than the Essex-born protest singer driving sales. Still, Bragg was probably took some added satisfaction in having some more pointed new product out in the world while he was achieving unlikely commercial success with material that was far more benign.

Subtitled “Live and Dubious,” Help Save the Youth of America includes a live version of the title song, recorded in Moscow and including Bragg’s verbal introduction translated into Russian. Irish folk performers the Pattersons join Bragg for a bluegrass-tinted take on “There is Power in a Union,” and there’s a cover of “Think Again” (originally by Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan), a plea for peace that invokes the hardscrabble history of the Soviet Union (“Do you think that the Russians want war?/ These are the sons and the daughters of parents who died in the last one/ Do you think that they want to go through that again?/ The destruction, the bloodshed, the suffering and pain”). Bragg doesn’t leave a lot of mystery to his political leanings, but protest songs are blunt objects by design. There’s no place for subtlety when there are youth that need saving.


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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