College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #780 to #777

china price

780. China Crisis, What Price Paradise (1986)

When China Crisis set out to record their fourth album, What Price Paradise, they were coming off a release that supposedly conferred upon them a sort of official endorsement from the upper echelon of chrome-plated pop. Walter Becker, of Steely Dan, produced the preceding album, Flaunt the Imperfection, as was instrumental enough to its sound that he was listed an official band member in the liner notes. Hopes of Aja-sized sales numbers failed to materialize, and Becker moved on. China Crisis was back to the outside rim of the record in their attempts to break through.

For What Price Paradise, the band enlisted the producing team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who’d presided over big albums for Madness and had most recently been behind the boards for the full-length offerings that first suggested Elvis Costello might be creatively fallible after all. They brought a crispness to the elegant electronics of China Crisis. There’s little doubt as to the band’s musical personality. It comes through on the album. The real issue is the growing sense that the mannered pop might be already be growing stale.

The album opens with the lounge-tinged “It’s Everything,” quickly demonstrating the limits of the sound as delivered by China Crisis at this point. It simply sounds aimless and a touch inert. That “Arizona Sky” can be fairly characterized as a really drab version of a Thompson Twins track suggests the direness of the situation. There’s no doubt talent on display, as heard in the lush, delicate “Hampton Beach.” But there’s also a default to painfully drippy lyrics that does in a song such as “Best Kept Secret” drippy lyrics (“You dream from the start of bridging two worlds apart/ And love, so they say/ Wins over the coldest heart”). “June Bride” is a notch or two better simply because the band embraces its cheery excess, complete with horn bleats that could be the eighties answer to “Sweet Caroline.”

What Price Paradise struggled to approach the modest success of its predecessors and the China Crisis’s promises dropped yet further with subsequent releases. They kept at it, though. Technically, they never folded and released a few more studio albums, including Autumn in the Neighborhood, in 2015. It was their first new full-length release in over twenty years.

 

New Movement

779. New Order, Movement (1981)

There was no question Joy Division would end once news came in that lead singer Ian Curtis had committed suicide. The post-punk revolutionaries had already come to an agreement that the band didn’t exist without all four members in it. However, surviving bandmates Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, and Bernard Sumner wanted to continue. Sometime shortly after the band played their first gig under the new configuration (according to many sources, billed as the No-Names), their manager, Rob Gretton, saw an article in the British newspaper The Guardian headlined “The People’s New Order of Kampuchea.” The new moniker discovered, New Order took a couple leftover songs and started work on their debut album, Movement.

Clearly and affectingly, Movement is the sound of a band very much in flux. The remaining trio was joined by keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, and they all scrape and poke at a new sonic approach. There are vestiges of their former sound and also an aching strain for reinvention that’s not quite in the band’s grasp yet. Opener “Dreams Never End” sounds exactly the way it should, like Joy Division pretzeling into something new. And then “Truth” shimmies up with a sound that seems yet more removed from what the prior iteration of the group might have conjured up. The impression is of evolution as an aurally traceable process.

Their route unmapped, New Order keeps taking sharp turns across the album. The racing gloom of “Chosen Time” clearly carries some Joy Division DNA, as does the vivacious “Denial,” though the latter could have been switched at the indie rock maternity hospital with some offspring of the Feelies. There are unpredictable elements scattered throughout, such as the nutty space sounds cutting across “ICB” or the thrilling, dizzying shifts in tempo and mood found on “The Him.” In a fitting paradox, the album is unified because of its absolute refusal to gel.

What now sounds like a fascinating new beginning was received at the time as a misguided continuance. The members of New Order largely agreed, and pressed forward with a more concerted attempt at forging their own identity. By the next album, New Order figured out how to make the first word in band name boldly accurate.

 

spandau true

778. Spandau Ballet, True (1983)

To record their third album, Spandau Ballet wanted to get out of London. As banner-carriers for the New Romantic music movement, Spandau Ballet had enjoyed a decent amount of success in their receptive homeland, with four Top 10 U.K. singles drawn from their first two albums. They were sensing an insularity to their creative process, though, and embarked to Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas (Talking Heads were recording Speaking in Tongues at the Caribbean outpost at the same time.) Chief songwriter Gary Kemp wanted to tap into something purer, more classic than the band had mustered before. He wanted to make modern soul music, and so he sat down at took a crack at his own Al Green number. He called the song “True.” It became the album’s title cut and a massive hit, topping the U.K. singles chart and making it up to #4 in the U.S., the band’s first visit to the Billboard Top 40.

“You never know what’s going to make a record work, but there was something about the aural quality of that song that suggested it was just going to be important,” Kemp later said. “Be we still didn’t think it was a single — it was a six-and-a-half-minute track. It was going to be the last song on the album. Can you imagine that now, sticking one of your best tracks last? No one would do that. In those days, though, you approached an album as an actual piece of work, and where you placed your tracks was all about how people heard the piece as a whole.”

Taken in its entirety, True is so beholden to its era that it’s difficult to hear it as much more than a charming, gleaming relic. “Communication” has some of the peppy emptiness of early Wham!, and “Foundation” has especially egregious insertions of the sort of ghastly mellow saxophone that practically carbon dates a cut to the nineteen-eighties. Even as the silky “Code of Love” stirs nostalgia for a time when pop songs might strive for elegance, there’s a pervasive sense that the spark of liveliness is missing. “Gold,” another hit single, sounds like the theme for a James Bond movie in which the secret agent never leaves his desk.

Bolstered by its hit singles, True was a big commercial success, selling more records than anything else in the band’s catalog and earning them a solid — if somewhat fleeting — place on pop radio and MTV playlists. The change of scenery had the desired impact.

 

beat rodeo

777. The Beat Rodeo, Staying Out Late with the Beat Rodeo (1984)

Before the Beat Rodeo served as the name for a band, it was the title of an EP officially credited to Steve Almaas. Recorded in Mitch Easter’s highly influential Drive-In Studio, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the four tracks laid out a musical mission that had serious traction on college radio in the mid-nineteen-eighties. The songs were retro, country-tinged, bopping, catchy, and deeply earnest. A former punk rocker, Almaas liked the approach so much that he recruited a few other musicians, transferred the Beat Rodeo terminology, and worked toward a full-length release.

The band’s debut, Staying Out Late with the Beat Rodeo, was produced by Easter’s cohort Don Dixon. It delivers a brisk batch of songs, pinned to the common concerns of pop music and imbued with a clamorous energy seemingly meant to give a band a fighting chance against clinking barware and building revelry. “Just Friends” is a gem of lovelorn twang, “Who’s Gonna Be Around” has an attention-getting restlessness, and “Take You Home” blast forward with a full-on honky-tonk jolt. The charm ebbs when the songs slow down, as on “Mistake,” but even the weaker material has something to recommend it. “Without You” seems a little drab until the sharp edges of the lyric (“She’s got a lot to do/ And she’s going to do it/ Without you”) start leaving gashes.

An album like this crackled on college radio, but it could be a hard sell elsewhere. The Beat Rodeo even found themselves the focus of Billboard article that was almost entirely concerned with the difficulty of marketing the band’s music. (“Top 40 stations told us, ‘We like their album, but it’s not quite our format,'” a label marketing honcho explains in the piece.) The band released one more album before being dropped from their label and subsequently calling it quits.

 

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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