College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #900 to #897

waterboys pagan

900. The Waterboys, A Pagan Place (1984)

When Mike Scott got underway on A Pagan Place, the sophomore album by his band the Waterboys, the preceding material hadn’t yet seen release. Instead of responding to any feedback from the public, Scott was still very much guided by his own perception about how the Scottish band’s sound should evolve, at least initially. Of course, it’s an open question as to whether or not Scott has even been all that concerned with outside notions about what he’s up to with his music.

It’s no wonder “The Big Music” was selected as a single. Both in title and execution, it offers a succinct description of the what the Waterboys deliver. Although officially the second album, A Pagan Place is arguably Scott finally getting to build up the Gaelic wall of sound he likely always had in mind. The tracks fill up with thick layers of sound, different elements being introduced with happy abandon. This was the first album to feature short-term Waterboy — and future World Party frontman — Karl Wallinger, and there’s a clear sense that Scott is leveraging the presence of the skilled collaborator into complex, fulsome avalanches of earthy sounds.

Scott could sometimes grow overly insular in his approach, following the eddy of his songwriting instincts until anyone paying attention could grow a little dizzy. Even as the title cut provides ample evidence that Scott’s propensity for endless vamping can be thrilling, the album mostly succeeds because of the recurring sense that he’s looking outside of himself for inspiration. “Church Not Made with Hands” imagines a woman who achieves a spiritual satisfaction through her own sense of assurance, and “Red Army Blues” is rendered from the perspective of a Soviet soldier. Apart from the lyrics, Scott’s music sense is sometimes more approachable, evidenced by the way “The Thrill is Gone” recalls Van Morrison and “All the Things She Gave Me” almost sounds like a song that could have become a broader hit (maybe because it bears at least a passing resemblance to Simple Minds’ “All the Things She Said,” a song that, it should be noted, arrived on record one year later).

This is, after all, Scott somewhat early in his career, before principles hardened into combativeness. On A Pagan Place, there’s a feel of camaraderie, of wanting to make music for all to hear.

 

 

jane sky

899. Jane Siberry, The Speckless Sky (1985)

The Speckless Sky is the third album from Canadian performer Jane Siberry. In her home country, it was a significant hit, winning her awards and pushing her high on the charts. It rattled up some interest in the U.S., too, but Siberry’s sound was just strange enough, especially at the time, that it’s hard to imagine any real breakthrough was imminent. Siberry was such an odd match that her first three albums were released in the States on Windham Hill Records, a label far better known for somnambulant new age music than the pop deconstructions Siberry crafted. It’s like the music universe just gave up and dropped her somewhere at random.

I’d wager some college programmers never even found this album because it arrived in a Windham Hill package. Those who did clearly found something to like. There’s an enduring generosity toward the idiosyncratic on the left end of the dial. The songs on The Speckless Sky are in a perpetual state of reinvention. The proof of Siberry’s vision is in a track like “Vladimir • Vladimir” which anticipates the revered pop abstractions of M83, well over a decade away. “One More Colour” sounds like Cocteau Twins if Rickie Lee Jones had performed some sort of baptism that chased the ethereal mysticism from their souls, and “Mein Bitte” is a new wave song emanating from a melting jukebox in a fever dream.

“Map of the World (Part II)” is maybe the ideal version of a Siberry song, in that it sounds like Laurie Anderson, but with a guiding spirit drawn more from classic pop records than the jagged confrontation of the nineteen-seventies New York art scene. It has a swarm of complicated melodic and lyrical information loaded into it (“I led my horse along the latitudes/ Across the folds and into white/ And somehow along the way/ My horse slid off sideways and was gone forever”), but it still feels grounded in a way that makes it no more absurd or inscrutable than the countless pop songs that fill in the corners with cheerily trilled nonsense syllables. In a wonderful alchemy, Siberry makes the strange seem sensible.

 

 

journey departure

898. Journey, Departure (1980)

I’m loathe to compliment journey, but I have to admit that “Any Way You Want It” makes for a mighty impressive kickoff to an album. Departures was the sixth album for Journey, but only the third since they’d undergone a serious reinvention which included the hiring of Steve Perry as lead singer. After scuffling on their first few records, that band — at the urging of their label — was actively trying to make hits, and “Any Way You Want It” absolutely announces itself as one, exploding with the forceful chorus from the very first note.

And so my praise for Departure comes to an end. The rest of the album ranges from pedestrian to dreadful, bearing all the worst hallmarks of the slicked up album rock posturing of the day. “Walks Like a Lady” is modern blues music drained of all authenticity and danger, but at least its gutty simplicity gives it a reasonable forward momentum. The band fares worse when they try harder, as on “People and Places,” which is like something their fished out of Pete Townshend’s trash the morning after a dark night of the soul found him taking an ill-advised pass at writing some desperate post-disco Tommy II.

The album also includes the dreadful power ballad “Someday Soon,” pushy guitar histrionics on “Line of Fire,” and the thunderously dumb rock grind “Homemade Love.” Disconcerting common for the era, “Where Were You” is gross rock star pining for a young girl (“Where were you/ When I wanted you to love and hold me tight?/ Where were you, little darlin’/ When you said to pick you up after school?”) that has an added dollop of skeeziness when the elusiveness of the presumed-minor is dismissed with the lyric “I don’t mind, little baby/ Cause your sister’s lookin’ real good to me.”

I can heap all the derision I want on Departures, but it proved Journey were on the right path. It was the band’s first album to make it into the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart, and it basically staked out the creative course they’d follow for their next release, Escape, which became a smash that to date has sold over nine million copies.

 

 

nitzer that

897. Nitzer Ebb, That Total Age (1987)

David Gooday, Vaughan “Bon” Harris, and Douglas McCarthy met while attending school in Essex, England. Dismayed by the light, silly pop that was able to make it all the way to the top of the British charts in the early nineteen-eighties, the trio decided to form their own band that would be vicious and confrontational in wielding synthesizers and other electronic instruments.

“We wanted to remove ourselves from that English music scene generally, and a lot of the music we identified with was coming from Europe, so we wanted a name that sounded kind of European,” Harris told The Chicago Tribune years later. Nitzer Ebb was pure nonsense, but it evoked the likes of Kraftwerk and other krautrock ruffians. It stuck, and the group started crafting fierce, agitated pop with shouted lyrics. Once they connected with producer Phil Harder, the industrial groove really locked in, and the band’s debut album, That Total Age, arrived in 1987.

The album plays like anger fed through a vocoder overcome with decay. It’s music for punks who want to dance, but don’t want to put up with the wounded luxury of Depeche Mode to do it. “Murderous” is emblematic, pairing shouted slogans with a surging electro rhythm and buzzing noises that elbow their way in from time to time.  Like other dance-friendly music, the material on That Total Age is resolutely repetitive. “Smear Body” sometimes feels like it’s settled into an unbreakable orbit and it will continue playing when the planet is broiled to inhabitability. “Let Your Body Learn” has a similar treadmill relentlessness.

It’s no wonder some enterprising internet user correctly determined that playing all ten tracks simultaneously was roughly as artistically satisfying as any other configuration of presenting the album. That’s not a criticism. It’s simply a honest report about how this music is built.

 

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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