820. Bob Dylan, Slow Train Coming (1979)
During his nineteen-sixties heyday, the most notorious moment of Bob Dylan’s career came at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when he flouted tradition and took the stage with a full band plugged into amplifiers. Going electric was not well received, with a memorable cry of “Judas!” from the midst of the riled audience. Coincidentally, that biblical cry of accusation provided a kind of forecast for the next instance of Dylan alienating fans, which arrived fourteen years later with the release of Slow Train Coming.
Dylan’s nineteenth studio album overall, Slow Train Coming was his first since converting to Christianity, a turn that truly began on a lonely tour night in Tucson. Every one of the new songs reflected the songwriter’s newfound devout outlook, which led to a rejection by many fans. The sourness wasn’t immediate, though. Slow Train Coming was largely lauded in reviews, including an unqualified rave in Rolling Stone, penned by publisher Jann Wenner, already a reliable shill for suspect product by aging rock icons.
“The more I hear the new album — at least fifty times since early July — the more I feel that it’s one of the finest records Dylan has ever made,” wrote Wenner. “In time, it is possible that it might even be considered his greatest.”
Wenner’s powers of prognostication proved poor in this instance. The album does include the immediate classic “Gotta Serve Somebody,” which became Dylan’s final single to make the Billboard Top 40. But much of it is stultified, bloated, and inane. Dylan, without a doubt, is one of the greatest songwriters of all time, but even he couldn’t bridge the gap between piousness and pop song platitudes. “Do Right to Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” is probably the most damning evidence of the creative shortcoming. “I Believe in You” borrows some of the cadence of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” but delivers its could-be-for-Jesus-could-be-for-a-pretty-girl declarations of devotion (“I believe in you when wintertime turns to summer/ I believe in you when white turn to black”) with a deadened plod that plays as insincerity.
Dylan does better when the music holds some vestiges of his long evocation of foundational blues music, as on “Slow Train” and “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” When he stretches his sound on “Man Gave Names to All the Animals,” employing a wan Caribbean beat, it sounds like an especially dippy Sunday School song.
In addition to the warm notices in the music press and the Top 40 single, Slow Train Coming was a success by most measures. It made it to #3 on the album charts and won Dylan a Grammy, in the category Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male, for “Gotta Serve Somebody.” But it also did lasting damage to his commercial prospects. After standing as a reliable chart presence for over a decade, Dylan wouldn’t push another album into the Top 10 until 1997’s Time Out of Mind.
819. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Almost Blue (1981)
Elvis Costello was amazingly prolific through the first portion of his career, even in the accelerated standard of output in the nineteen-seventies and -eighties. Beginning with his 1977 debut, My Aim is True, Costello delivered one new album of original material every year through 1984. The exception was 1981, during which he dropped two new albums. The first was Trust, a strong enough set that Trouser Press deemed it the best of the year. The second album was Almost Blue, which was the first Costello album to draw a withering appraisal.
At least Costello’s sterling reputation as a songwriter remained intact. Almost Blue was entirely comprised of covers. The Irish titan of punk and new wave decided to take a pass at a batch of country music songs, honoring the core stylings while also buffing up a final presentation that smacked of his usual brash posturing. The fit is uneasy, which could have resulted in the sort of friction that enlivens an album. Instead, everything feels off, more indulgence than reinvention.
There are points when the album nearly works, or maybe works well enough. The racing “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)?” and the jaunty “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” have some appeal, though they’re still inconsequential enough to seem like misplaced B-sides. More often, confusion settles in, as with the weird new wave undercurrent to “Sittin’ and Thinkin’.” Then there’s Costello’s insistence on pushing too far past his artistic limitation. “Sweet Dreams” Costello’s finds him in the perpetually unfortunate mode of striving to position himself as a modern day crooner.
At the time, Almost Blue was a mere distraction in the midst of an amazing run of records. It was proof of fallibility and not much else. Costello, equally to his credit and detriment, would circle back to similarly ill-fitting and unexpected projects for the duration of his career. Some are better than others, but Almost Blue set an accurate and lasting standard. They’re all problematic.
818. Tom Robinson Band, TRB Two (1979)
Tom Robinson band was formed by its namesake, the group’s lead vocalist and bassist, after he had some initial success playing shows in the volatile and fertile London club scene of the mid-nineteen-seventies. Once he pulled together a tight rock ‘n’ roll outfit, it didn’t take long for Robinson to get the crew signed to EMI Records. The group’s first single, “2-4-6-8 Motorway,” was a Top 5 hit on the U.K. charts.
Tom Robinson band never equalled that success, but they idled forward just enough to secure Todd Rundgren as producer for their sophomore studio LP, the literally titled TRB Two. The power pop blast of opener “All Right All Night” signals Rundgren’s presence and influence, as does the backstory of studio infighting and heightened drama. The band wouldn’t survive to record a third album.
There were ample disputes over which songs should be used and how to record them, and TRB Two shows the conflicts clearly. It’s messy, but often fascinating in its disrepair. The personality of band simply won’t stay put. “Blue Murder” sounds like the missing link between Jackson Browne and Jim Carroll, and “Crossing Over the Road” is Steely Dan led by a mediocre Dr. John impersonator. “Days of Rage” could have been traded back and forth with REO Speedwagon until no one was sure which band recorded it first. The roaming identity is better than the band’s stabs at politically aware pop, even if their ready contributions to various benefit concerts prove earnestness. The good intentions of “Let My People Be” are severely undercut by dreadful lyrics (“See my amigo/ He got the fever”).
The band officially broke up before the end of 1979. Robinson followed with several solo outings, reunited the group for one short spell in the late eighties.
817. Soul Asylum, Made to Be Broken (1986)
Although it took a bit before they settled on the band name that would carry them through for years to come Soul Asylum formed in Minneapolis in 1981. That put their origin as roughly concurrent to those of fellow twin cities denizens the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. Although they were basically contemporaries, Soul Asylum was long dogged with the perception that they were cuff-tugging little brothers, trying ever so hard to catch up with the revered output of the other bands. If those comparisons were going to be there anyway, might as well lean into them. For Soul Asylum’s second album, Made to Be broken, they fully embraced the automatically drawn connection by working with Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould as producer.
There’s no mistaking the time and place that birthed Made to Be Broken. “Tied to the Tracks” is hardcore punk met with a inborn pop sensibility and presented with candy coating rendered from alcohol upped in toxicity. That was the model for bands who occasionally toted their amps across Minneapolis skyways in the eighties. And Soul Asylum followed it well, as heard on the jabbing “New Feelings” and within the pogo beat fury of “Long Way Home.” They could switch up the sound well enough, demonstrated on the cowpunk rouser “Never Really Been” (“And where will you be in 1993?/ Still sitting in the same chair”) and the Dan Murphy-penned “Can’t Go Back,” which is a song R.E.M. might have come up with if they launched their career a couple years later and about a thousand miles north. Soul Asylum’s wheelhouse, though, is pummeling rock, and Made to Be Broken is packed with it.
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.