868. Laurie Anderson, United States Live (1984)
”Since I tour a lot, especially in Europe, ‘I’ve frequently found myself sitting across the dinner table from people who ask me, ‘How can you live in a country like that?,'” Laurie Anderson told The New York Times Magazine thirty-five years ago. “I really am on the defensive a lot of the time, and I need to have some way to deal with that.”
Anderson was featured in the publication roughly concurrently with the first full performance of her massive, monumental United States. The four part, eight hour production premiered over two nights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 1983. Incorporating music previously released by Anderson (“O Superman,” by then a beloved cult hit, gets its turn), the piece interweaves songs, sounds, and spoken word monologues across four parts — roughly themed to transportation, politics, love, and money — enhanced by Anderson’s marvelous, inventive visual sense. It was performance art with equal emphasis on both words.
“The idea was to make a big portrait of the country,” Anderson added to the Times Magazine, articulating a grand ambition with charming modesty.
A few years earlier, Anderson entered into an unlikely pact with Warner Bros., and, to the label’s credit, United States was seen as an opportunity rather than an unrelated project from one flickering light in their galaxy of stars. Although it was sure to sell only modestly, United States Live was issued as a five-LP box set. (Prince’s Purple Rain spent the last five months of 1984 in an uninterrupted streak at the top of the Billboard album chart, so Warner Bros. was making its money elsewhere.) The work was necessarily condensed, but it was really only the visually driven elements that were left aside. If it could at all work on record — whether musical or simple recitation — the material was transferred over, then enwrapped in packaging that further conveyed Anderson’s distinctive, striking sensibility.
Anderson has no shortage of much-loved works to her credit across a long, storied career, United States arguably still stands as her magnum opus. And United States Live is itself a vitally important artifact, arguably the only serious attempt to capture and preserve the near totality of one of her larger pieces.
867. Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System, Tackhead Tape Time (1987)
Bassist Doug Wimbish, percussionist Keith Leblanc, and guitarist Skip McDonald are embedded deeply in the layers of sediment that make up the foundation of hip hop. They were all in the house band of Sugar Hill Records, which led directly to their presence on the monumental single “The Message,” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Aside from their studio work, the trio started playing together, eventually collaborating with producer Adrian Sherwood to develop into an act that would be called Tackhead. They started working with Gary Clail, an English MC who was developing a fervent following in the mid nineteen-eighties. Billed together as Gary Clail’s Tackhead Sound System, the collective released Tackhead Tape Time, a dizzying assemblage of fierce beats with yet fiercer political commentary.
Album opener “Mind at the End of the Tether” is a fever dream of festering rhythms and excavated audio, propelling the listener into a state of sweaty agitation. This serves as a sort of mission statement of the group, shuffling flares of awareness into a track that could keep a dance floor active. They weren’t particularly oblique in their diatribes, either. At times, the tracks play like manifestos with the music — no matter how layered and complex — added as an afterthought. “What’s My Mission Now? (Fight the Devil)” opens with cries of “Saigon!,” before piling up samples of commentary on the military industrial complex.
If there is an occasional lapse into didactic redundancy, the thrilling music of Tackhead usually salvages the material. “Man in a Suitcase” features dreamy electronic waves key-scratched by rapid trills, manipulated samples, and comet-tail flares of sound. The thumping “Reality” gives the impression that it is only the benevolent restraint of the musicians that keeps the cut from reverberating speakers into a heap of shards. After going their separate ways, Clail would do just fine for himself, delivering several club hits, but it was clearly Tackhead that had something more pertinent to contribute to the emerging music style. Within a couple years, Tackhead released Friendly as a Hand Grenade, a full-length studio effort that didn’t sell a lot of records, but was widely regarded as a peak of the form.
866. Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, The Distance (1983)
Detroit rocker Bob Seger was a fairly prolific songwriter throughout much of the nineteen-seventies, but he started to slow down as the next decade dawned. The situation was perhaps partially attributable to the pressures of success. Across the studio albums Stranger in Town, released in 1978, and Against the Wind, on record racks beginning in 1980, Seger had seven Top 40 hits. Even the 1981 live album Nine Tonight helped Seger push toward the top of the singles charts, with the cover “Tryin’ to Live My Life Without You.” Previously Seger could just bang out songs of teenage longing and ragged nostalgia. Now there was an expectation that those songs were going to be hits. Reportedly, the album The Distance, tallied as Seger’s twelfth overall, took over fourteen months to record, most of that time eaten up by the agonizing effort to come up with new songs.
In the end, though, Seger thought he had enough to make a double album, a prospect he was previously loath to explore, having gone on record insisting that, since The Beatles, every rock ‘n’ roll studio effort that sprawled to four sides would have been better pared down to a single LP. Seger tried to push himself in different directions in his songwriting, pursuing approaches that were outside of his well-established norm. His label pushed back somewhat, convincing Seger to jettison the less characteristic tracks to get down to a single album. As a result, The Distance winds up as such a quintessential example of Seger’s craft that it’s practically a cliché. “Even Now” is the track a powerful computer would create if every earlier Seger song was fed into its AI interface. Asked to repeat the experiment, the computer would spit out “Roll Me Away.”
Even so, The Distance does offer some inkling of the different byways Seger’s career could have followed. “Shame on the Moon,” a cover of a Rodney Crowell song, mellows Seger’s usual approach with a little country ease. Remarkably, it became Seger’s highest charting single to that point. (Ever more surprising, Seger’s sole chart-topper was the utterly forgettable Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack contribution “Shakedown.”) The hoedown-friendly version of Seger isn’t earth-shaking, but it offers more intrigue that the drippy balladeer of “Coming Home” or the bored, slicked-up rockabilly riffing of “Making Thunderbirds.”
The album was another hit for Seger, yielding three Top 40 singles and selling enough copies to continue a string of platinum albums that began with Beautiful Loser, released in 1975. It didn’t return the previous speed of his creativity, though. At a time when artists were still expected to keep a fairly narrow window between releases, it would be another four years before Seger’s next full-length studio album.
865. The Jam, Dig the New Breed (1982)
In October of 1982, Paul Weller announced the Jam was coming to an end. Across six studio albums and a bevy of startling singles, the brash fellows from Surrey, England defined the Mod Revival movement in the U.K., combining refined songcraft with punk energy to make driving, delirious music. At the time Weller dropped the news, he also laid out details of a brief farewell tour, setting the band’s final performance for December 10, 1982. On that very day, the album Dig the New Breed hit shops. A collection of live tracks from across the band’s brief but grand history, the album served as a sharp closing bow. Listen up, lads, music like this may not come your way again.
If the album was vital in the moment for its sense of finality, it is now merely another live album, marginally different from the four others that followed in the decades since. And that doesn’t include the bounty of other collected and archival material released under the banner of the Jam, the shards of history compensating for the band’s stubborn resistance to following their contemporaries into the lucrative business model of reunion efforts. Of course, the album’s loss of individual distinctiveness doesn’t necessarily rob it of its thrills. The Jam was a forceful act on stage, and Dig the New Breed dutifully captures the smack of their music.
“Set the House Ablaze” is especially fierce on this recording, and the timeless “Going Underground” similarly hits hard. In general, the Jam is awash in performance personality across the album, typified by Weller’s deceptively simple vocal calisthenics on “Big Bird.” And, as one would hope on such an album, there are moments when the material is gratifyingly eye-opening. I often forget about the inherent toughness of the Jam’s music, but the Dig the New Breed version of “Dreams of Children” opens with a burbling blast of guitar noise that I could easily mistake for the handiwork of Bob Stinson at the height of the Replacements’ reckless youth.
Dig the New Breed is good enough to have the precise effect the band likely intended. As the Jam closed their guitar cases, it makes the listener long for just a little more.
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.