College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #788 to #785

stevie wild

788. Stevie Nicks, The Wild Heart (1983)

At the time Stevie Nicks recorded The Wild Heart, her second solo album, there was little doubt that she was emerging as the dominant member of Fleetwood Mac, the band that could still be considered her primary gig. The band alienated a chunk of the fan base with their 1979 album, Tusk, but had rebounded with the soft rock accessibility of Mirage, released in 1982. In the span between those two albums, solo outings from Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood underperformed. In contrast, Nicks had a sizable hit with her first outing on her own. Bella Donna, released in 1981, topped the Billboard album chart and yielded four Top 40 singles.

Shortly after the Fleetwood Mac tour in support of Mirage loaded out for the final time, Nicks raced back into the studio. Imbued with a new urgency by the death of a close friend and the quick dissolution of her marriage to that friend’s widower, undertaken largely out of a sense of obligated to care for the deceased’s newborn son (“Completely crazy,” Nicks said later. “We were all in such insane grief, just completely deranged.”), Nicks attacked the creative process with a sort of fervor. The resulting tracks have a vigorous polish and sharp sense of craft, fortified by the distinctive, emotive vocals of Nicks.

“Stand Back” is a near-perfect distillation of Nicks’s creative voice: forceful, churning, defiant in heartbreak, bolstered by a relentless nineteen-eighties synthesizer part (contributed by Prince, uncredited), and suited to spinning in lace and witchy shawls. Released as the album’s first single, it made it up to #5 on the Billboard singles chart. Much of the rest of the album adheres devotedly to that basic template, with only album closer “Beauty and the Beast” falling prey to the syrupy balladry that was increasingly creeping into the songbooks of all the Fleetwood Mac members. “If Anyone Falls” has a finely calibrated keening bombast, and “Nothing Ever Changes” pushes the trademark Nicks sound right to the limit of its cheesiness without ever quite crossing the line.

The Wild Heart was another hit for Nicks, roughly keeping pace with the commercial achievements of Mirage. Along with its direct predecessor, The Wild Heart served as the foundation for a solo career notable enough that Nicks recently locked induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of the Fame, the first woman to achieve the honor as both a member of a band and a solo artist.

 

 

dire communique

787. Dire Straits, Communiqué (1979)

The record labels weren’t dawdling with their new band Dire Straits. Mere weeks after the release of the group’s self-titled debut, which included the hit single “Sultans of Swing,” singer-guitarist Mark Knopfler and his cohorts were hustled off to Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas, to start working on the follow-up. Dire Straits were a strange outlier in the musical moment, exhibiting the jazzy slickness of Steely Dan without the jazz or the breezy pop of Boz Scaggs without the sense of overt ease. In retrospect, it almost seems as if the music executives were less concerned about capitalizing on a band with a fresh hit and more committed to conveyor belting out more and more material before the jig was up.

The resulting sophomore album, Communiqué, is a somewhat mushy affair. It showcases Knopfler’s intricate guitar playing and lyrics tangled up between erudite and dully plainspoken. The tracks proceed with the forward momentum of a wispy cloud on a windless day. The title cut meanders, Knopfler’s deep murmur voice layered atop music that approaches bluesy riffs only to back away as if flushed with embarrassment at its momentary insolence. Most of the album settled into the same numbed zone, with single “Lady Writer” standing as one of the few cuts that actually has a hook. Supposedly written about author Marina Warner, inspired by little more than Knopfler watching her get interviewed on television, the songs lyrics reflect the mundane inspiration (“Lady writer on the TV/ Talk about the Virgin Mary/ Reminded me of you/ Expectations left to come up to yeah”).

If Communiqué sounds bland, it basically did the job it was supposed to do. It didn’t sell quite as well as Dire Straits, but it kept the band in the public consciousness. They also kept churning out new albums at a fairly steady clip. Only later in the nineteen-eighties did they really take their time in crafting an album. Of course, in that instance, the results were uniquely impressive.

 

 

blue fire

786. Blue Öyster Cult, Fire of Unknown Origin (1981)

Fire of Unknown Origin was the eight studio album recorded by Blue Öyster Cult, landing almost a full decade after their self-titled debut. Heading into the nineteen-eighties, longevity wasn’t exactly a quality associated with rock ‘n’ roll bands, which may help explain the ripples of reinvention present on the record. Best known for the catchy classic rock morbidity of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Öyster Cult seemingly surveyed the music that was making headway on the charts and determined that they could play the shifting game as well as anyone. To a degree, they were correct. The new wave nicking cut “Burnin’ for You” became the band’s second single to reach the Billboard Top 40.

Fire of Unknown Origin is remarkably all over the place. The free-ranging style choices don’t always work, but at least the album is rarely boring. “Sole Survivor” is a fine example of the Alice Cooper model of adorning a hard rock frame with theatrical rock opera tinsel and baubles, “Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver” is dutifully representative of the musical genre cited in its title, and the title cut entertainingly hedges its bet by carrying a disco tinge. With just the slightest reworking, “After Dark” could turn into a smashing Meat Puppets song, and “Joan Crawford,” inspired by Mommie Dearest, lands in some strange netherworld between Bruce Springsteen and Rufus Wainwright.

Blue Öyster Cult earned a gold record with Fire of Unknown Origin, and undoubtedly bought themselves a few more years of major label largess. They released three more studio albums through the remainder of the eighties, to diminishing chart returns. They kept right at it, still touring to this day.

 

 

nina in

785. Nina Hagen, Nina Hagen in Ekstasy (1985)

Anyone looking for an example of just how wild and wooly the business of show could be in the nineteen-eighties could satisfactorily complete that quest by watching the shockingly lengthy amount of time Nina Hagen spent spinning bodacious lunacy on a 1985 episode of The Merv Griffith Show, seated on a couch next to none other than Don Rickles. She was there promoting Nina Hagen in Ekstasy, her third solo album (and fifth overall, including the pair released under the name the Nina Hagen Band), which found her playing up the garish theatricality and punk rock abrasion that had always been part of her aesthetic. Seeing the German-born performer present that persona without the slightest bit of tempering on a middlebrow talk show broadcast to U.S. homes in the middle of the afternoon approaches the surreal.

Nina Hagen in Ekstasy is a fearless stunt dropped onto record. It’s vibrantly alive and flatly ludicrous. As if demonstrating just how far she’ll go to dare the pop culture authorities to loop a long hook around her midsection and yank her offstage, Hagen peppers the album with thoroughly familiar material she delivers with wild-eyed gusto. Her version of “My Way” that makes the famed Sid Vicious evisceration of the song sound comparatively demure. And “Spirit in the Sky” is similarly unorthodox, though more loopy seduction than abrasive endurance test. As a capper, “The Lord’s Prayer” transforms the pious proclamation into warped pop delivered at a breakneck pace. Hagen’s vocals are joyously all over the place on single “Universal Radio” (originally recorded by the Ron Dumas Group), a zingy recklessness she tops with “1985 Ekstasy Drive,” on which she occasionally pushes her screech to the very limits of the frequency of human hearing.

The glorious unhinged quality of Hagen’s music gives it a lasting thrill. It also was, perhaps understandably, too much for her label, CBS Records. Unsure of how to turn music this deliberate strange into pop hits, CBS dropped the artist shortly after the release of Nina Hagen in Ekstasy. She continued making music for a variety of labels for many years after. Best as I call tell, she didn’t cross paths with Don Rickles again.

 

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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