College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #792 to #789

eric backless

792. Eric Clapton, Backless (1978)

Eric Clapton’s career was on steady ground when he made the 1978 album Backless. He’d spent several years with essentially the same backing band, he was working on the second straight album with producer Glyn Johns, and he was coming the very successful 1977 LP Slowhand, which included the Top 40 single “Lay Down Sally.” He was in that rock ‘n’ roll sweet spot: a legend without being a relic.

Accordingly, Backless is the artist in a confidently, relaxed mode, a rock god at ease. The album inevitable suffers from a touch of the blandness that typifies much of Clapton’s solo work, but it’s also more agreeable than a lot of his output. Hit single “Promises” is emblematic, swirling a toe in the gentle pop of adult contemporary radio (an abomination just emerging on U.S. airwaves) and improbably charming in the process. For all his devotion to the grit of classic blues music, Clapton is instinctively a softie, and the cut show he can indulge that part of himself without giving into treacle.

“Early in the Morning” is Clapton as dutiful student, and the swampy “I’ll Make Love to You Anytime,” originally written and performed by J.J. Cale, is similarly reverential to his spiritual forebears. This is — and always has been — where the performer is at his strongest. Interestingly, some of the weaker chunks of the album center on contributions from Bob Dylan. The future Nobel winner had engaged in very loose songwriting sessions with singer Helena Springs, discarding a lot of the resulting material. Clapton pulled a couple from the rubbish bin, recording both “Walk Out in the Rain” and “If I Don’t Be There By Morning.” They’re joyless trudges, utterly generic. The tracks were surely viewed as a convergence of rock icons. Instead, they forecast the dire tedium to come in Clapton’s recording career.



rundgren healing

791. Todd Rundgren, Healing (1981)

When Healing arrived, it stood as the first new solo studio album from Todd Rundgren in three years. He’d spent a good chunk of the interim recording with his band Utopia, a situation that was trying the patience of Albert Grossman, the head of Rundgren’s label. The tension was exacerbated by the unkind reception given to Utopia’s 1980 album, Deface the Music. Grossman wanted Rundgren to concentrate on solo work, which generally fared better on the charts. Healing is an album that arguably proves the wisdom of the adage “Be careful what you wish for.”

Grossman probably wanted the next “Hello, It’s Me.” Instead, Rundgren delivered an album-length experiment, an attempt to see if a record could have therapeutic qualities, if, in its delicacy and intricacy, it could heal the soul as it spun. Indeed, the whole second side is given over to a three part “Healing” suite, characterized by arch space pop and  milquetoast jazz embellishments. The same general vibe is found on the first half of the record, in the fussy, fluttery “Healer” and “Flesh,” which manages to be both staid and sonically ornate. The frantic calliope pop number “Golden Goose” is at least distinctly different. Taken as a whole, it all sounds more like artier Al Stewart than the work of a pop visionary.

Healing was such an abstraction that Grossman, maintaining no single that could be easily extracted from it, convinced Rundgren to record an additional song and package a stand-alone 7-inch with the release. “Time Heals” was bundled with Healing, and the accompanying video, directed by Rundgren, was part of the inaugural rotation when MTV launched, in the summer of 1981.



beat stop

790. The English Beat, I Just Can’t Stop It (1980)

A force of multicultural exuberance, the English Beat (or simply the Beat in their homeland) crafted a sterling debut with I Just Can’t Stop It. Formed in 1978, the band helped forge and embodied the ska-influenced pop music that made a major impression on the U.K. charts in the years around the turn of the decade. Album opener “Mirror in the Bathroom” was a deserving smash at home (and a reasonably strong presence on the U.S. dance chart), peaking at #4, in part because its references to surreptitiously enjoyed cocaine were just oblique enough to sidestep the scrutiny of more prudish programmers. Musically, it’s a buoyant blast, properly setting the stage for the smart, zesty songs to follow.

“Twist & Crawl” is deliciously slinky, but with a jabbing authority, and the easy chug of “Hands Off…She’s Mine” carries a fairly withering appraisal of male possessiveness. There’s a lean, cunning takedown in “Big Shot,” and the gets even more specific in their danceable dismissiveness on “Stand Down Margaret,” which takes at the iron-willed prime minister who was bad for the nation but was remarkably good for inspiring angry punk retorts. Like many of their compatriots, the English Beat had pointed ideas to share and a lively musicality in expressing them.

The album grows more reliant on covers as it moves to the end — a lilting take on “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” a warm, pleasant version of “Jackpot,” originally performed by the Pioneers — which could easily dull the personalized assurance of the band’s voice. Instead, it effectively binds them to the past they drew upon while simultaneously demonstrating their ability to move beyond it, forging material that was at once familiar and boldly new.



berlin love

789. Berlin, Love Life (1984)

Formed in California, well away from the European capital from which they took their name, the band Berlin effectively surfed the waves of early-nineteen-eighties new wave. For their third full-length, Love Life, the band primarily worked with producer Mike Howlett, who had something of a golden touch for the day, presiding over seminal hits by the likes of A Flock of Seagulls and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Accordingly, Love Life is vivaciously of its era, awash in synthesizers and icy Europeans beats, the chill only countered somewhat by the coyly flirtatious vocals of Terri Nunn.

Galloping “No More Words” was the band’s first single to crack the Billboard Top 40, and it’s matched in polished exactitude by “Touch” and “Pictures of You.” Although slowing down would later bring the band a true monster hit, that approach results in the least compelling stretches of Love Life. “Fall” plays like a subpar version of what ‘Til Tuesday would arrive with one year later, and “In My Dreams” is, befitting the title, a little sleepy despite the emotional strain in Nunn’s singing. There’s a hint of the cheerful ludicrousness that could have been in “Dancing in Berlin,” a track co-produced by Giorgio Moroder and Richie Zito. A band called Berlin performing a dance song called “Dancing in Berlin” is downright delectable in its carefree flouting of serious artistic intention. Love Life could use more of that.

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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