College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #844 to #841

belew rhino

844. Adrian Belew, Lone Rhino (1982)

When Adrian Belew released his solo debut, Lone Rhino, he already had a resume heavy with time served alongside iconoclastic geniuses. In the prior decade, he’d been a showcase guitarist alongside Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. One year earlier, he joined the lineup of a revived King Crimson. It was his work with Talking Heads offshoot Tom Tom Club that brought Belew into the orbit of Island Records head Chris Blackwell. A record contract was offered, and Lone Rhino followed in short order.

In accordance with his famed collaborators, Belew delivered music that was deliriously odd. With his guitar, Belew was like a magician on acid, wringing out sounds that made it seem as if the neck and strings of the instrument became molten at his touch. His kinship with other musicians was clear, and he often seemed close to alignment with the prevalent experimentation of the era. And yet there was a unique discomfort to Belew’s soundscapes.

“Big Electric Cat” is vividly off-kilter, stapling together an electrified beat and probing instrumentation, recalling Peter Gabriel’s pushes into the sonically surreal, but with a much weirder vibe. “Hot Sun” is a mere nibble, but so infused with electronic simmering that it fascinates. With music pitched somewhere between Rockpile retro pop and loopy white funk, “Swingline” recounts peeping on the backyard existences of Midwesterners during a long train ride (“Look at that kid over there with no underwear/ And a silly dog who doesn’t care”). Belew’s probing sometimes threatens to devolve into drab electronic noodling, as on “The Man in the Moon,” but he’s more often truly compelling as he cracks open his songs and cavorts in the resulting shower of shiny notes. It’s almost more of a surprise when a comparatively straightforward song — such as “Animal Grace” — pops up on the playlist.

Following Lone Rhino, Belew continued to be ridiculously productive, releasing a new solo album every year or two which serving as a highly skilled hired hand. Before the nineteen-eighties were over, he founded and fronted the Bears, appeared on two more King Crimson efforts, and played on albums by Laurie Anderson, Joe Cocker, Jean Michel Jarre, Cyndi Lauper, and Paul Simon.



crenshaw mary

843. Marshall Crenshaw, Mary Jean & 9 Others (1987)

Mary Jean & 9 Others was the fourth full-length album from Marshall Crenshaw, and it provided some evidence that the crisp style of his songwriting was increasingly out of step with the studio polish so prominent in nineteen-eighties music. The same year, Crenshaw played Buddy Holly in La Bamba (in what knowledgable music fans widely considered inspired casting), which only accentuated the idea that he was best suited to another time, when easy tunefulness was more valuable than an expansive pliability that allowed for the adding stuffing of all manner of synthesized elements.

Sometimes, the melding of styles works fairly well. “This is Easy” has one of Crnenshaw’s terrific hooks grounded in vintage rock stylings, and the pristine studio work helps it shine like cherry candy. And “Wild Abandon” is straightforward but engaging, an example of a song’s charms being accentuated by the fulsome attention of producer Don Dixon. On other tracks — “Mary Jean” is a prime example — the same thick strokes approach obscures Crenshaw’s creative personality almost entirely. The slower songs arguably fare worst. The ripe yearning of “Calling Out for Love (at Crying Time)” nearly redeems it, but “They Never Will Know” is drippier than a cake left out in the rain. Then there’s the Peter Case composition “Steel Strings,” which peppers in some many sonic notions — a Bo Diddley hear, some Caribbean tones there — that it turns into a exhausting muddle.

It’s possible Crenshaw was starting to get a little bored with the grind of delivering a new set of songs every couple years. His next album (Good Evening, released in 1989) was largely comprised of songs written by or cowritten with others, and he started to tackle projects that allowed him to rummage through the archives of vintage music. Within a few years, Crenshaw assembled the honky tonk compilation Hillbilly Music…Thank God! and penned the book Hollywood Rock,a survey of pop stars in the movies.



pet please

842. Pet Shop Boys, Please (1986)

According to legend, the title of the debut album from Pet Shop Boys was chosen in a deliberately effort to inject a bit more politeness in the world. The theory was that interested music buyers would head to their local shop and say to the proprietor some variant on “I’d like the new Pet Shop Boys album, Please.” It’s unlikely that the gambit affected a major shift in cultural mores, but the album itself can make a fair claim at revolution.

Now that “West End Girls,” the album’s lead single, has entered the canon of era-defining hits, it’s more difficult to convey exactly how different the song sounded at the time. That its place atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart was bracketed by Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” provides some idea. Pop hits at the time (as is the case now) were often pushy and obvious, putting any nuance in music and lyrics aside to better capture the fleeting attention of listeners who were expertly conditioned to gleefully embrace material that was superficially new but safely familiar. “West End Girls” was almost painfully restrained, couching its lyrical observations about the constant pressures endured by the lower class in arch synth-pop seemingly indifferent to whether or not it lured anyone to the dance floor.

The smash hit single was properly representative of the whole album. Please is consistently distant and alluring, wise and impulsive, insistent and relaxed. “Love Comes Quickly” is as seductively icy as some sly come on from Sade, and “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” surges, churns, sparks and practically glistens. The latter track pushes back against the duo’s reputation for chilliness. There is an abundance of feeling animating the cut, expressed through the richness of its construction. That’s also found in “I Want a Lover,” a synth epic of grand drama and billowing layers, like Pet Shop Boys are claiming the Scott Walker legacy as their own. The complexities crafted with evident ease by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (abetted mightily, no doubt, by producer Stephen Hague) are also well expressed by “Why Don’t We Live Together,” which is sweet (“We’ll find a home together/ And sleep there every night”) and tangy (“I may not always love you/ You may not care”) at the same time.

Impressive as it is, there are minor flaws to be found on Please. Musically, “Suburbia” sounds a little too much like it was built around a salvaged theme for a nighttime soap. And “Violence” is arguably the gentlest sounding song that could conceivably be given that title, which could have created an intriguing contrast, but instead comes across as a drab mismatch. These are the least offensive of exceptions, though. Mostly, Please has the sharp ring of a band redefining their chosen genre with unabashed confidence.



pete xl

841. Pete Shelley, XL1 (1983)

In 1983, Pete Shelley was already a legend in certain circles. He had devotees from his time as frontman of the Buzzcocks, of course, and he also picked up a cadre of supporters from his more synth-oriented proper solo bow “Homosapien” (which preceded the album of the same name), in no small part because an oblique lyrical reference to gay sex combined with Shelley’s uncommon openness about his bisexuality to cause the BBC to band the song. Nothing creates the cachet of important rebelliousness like an official rejection by the cultural powers that be.

And yet, Shelley’s second solo album, XL1, was probably less notable for any of the music in its grooves than an extra item packaged within the shrink wrap. The album was bundled with a computer program, compatible with the home computer ZX Spectrum, that provided visual accompaniments to all of the songs. The computer animation was rudimentary, but simply thinking to include such a component was strikingly forward-thinking.

Removed from its gimmick, XL1 isn’t particularly successful. Moving away from the brash punk authority of his previous band, Shelley favors a style of synth pop that is painfully dated, overly enamored of studio craft over sturdy song stylings. To note that “If You Ask Me (I Won’t Say No)” hews perilously close to the Wet Wet Wet model or that “I Just Wanna Touch” sounds like a slightly edgier Howard Jones is as cruel as it is accurate. There are signs of where Shelley could have taken the material in more satisfying directions. “You Know Better Than I Know” is sprightly enough to intrigue, and “Millions of People (No One Like You)” is one or two good choices away from turning into a brilliantly trashy glam rock song.

Unsurprisingly, XL1 was met with indifference. Shelley’s label, Arista Records, dropped him, and there would be only one more solo album before he reassembled the Buzzcocks, which has remained his primary artistic avenue ever since.


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


2 thoughts on “College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #844 to #841

  1. I’m a big Crenshaw fan, but your take here is fair. Though I like several songs on it rather well (including a couple you don’t mention), Mary Jean and 9 Others might be my least favorite of his 80s albums (yes, even behind Good Evening). I want to consider your specific criticisms more, but it was a letdown after Downtown. Just for kicks, I looked up what Steve Simels had to say in the October 87 issue of Stereo Review. Interesting contrast with what you wrote–he thought Dixon provided MC with the best production he’d received to date, and that “Steel Strings” was its only worthwhile track. I like Crenshaw’s version of “Steel Strings” more than it sounds like you do, but I will say the best thing about it is that it pointed me toward Case.

    1. I try the best I can to detach myself from established conceptions and nostalgic preferences and give everything a fresh listen for these posts. I remember liking a lot of material off of “Mary Jean” back then, maybe in part because I was more forgiving of production choices that now rankle me. I’ll also admit that my perception of Crenshaw’s various album is likely significantly impacted by my pronounced affection for the lean, decidedly unpolished tracks on the compilation “The 9 Volt Years.” My favorite Crenshaw has fewer studio embellishments, I guess.

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