College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #776 to #773

buzzcocks tension

776. Buzzcocks, A Different Kind of Tension (1979)

Buzzcocks operated with a raw nerve openness (few other bands would be so brazen to release a single called “Orgasm Addict” in the nineteen-seventies), so it makes sense that their final album signals the reverberating conflict that was about to shake the band apart. A Different Kind of Tension is what the album title promised, plausibly reflecting the edgy guitars and squalling melodies that dominated the band’s sound. But it could also be as simple as an admission that the band members’ sometimes divergent outlooks were reaching a point where continuing as a collective was untenable.

In a wonderful way, “Sitting Around at Home” can’t quite settle on which type of tension is best, veering between plodding and racing in its pace. Therein is the dazzling unpredictability of the band. Buzzcocks’ offerings exist in the place between punk and post-punk, less a figure on the evolutionary chart than the atmosphere around the shuffling beings. The post punk burble of “Raison D’etre” is practically a template, but it also somehow exists in its own sweaty, snarled space. The band can the material up with all sorts of studio effects — as with the album’s radio dial sound effects or the weirdo robot voice on the title cut — but the steely spine of expert songcraft running through the tracks is what’s memorable.

“I Don’t Know What to Do with My Life” is a razor wire assessment of the perpetual disappointment of youthful existence, when it seems like the height of foolishness to join a society that refuses to extend a gracious helping hand (“I don’t know what’s gone wrong with my life/ But you know I never do seem to win/ Whenever I think I’ve straightened it out/ It becomes a vicious circle again”). In its capturing of the glum wheel-spinning of a spiked hair, leather-clad generation, the cut could make a claim for being the quintessential Buzzcocks song in the same way “Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me” is the essence of Morrissey’s elegant self-pitying misery, never to be bested. But it exists on very same album with the piquant “You Say You Don’t Love Me,” an unrequited love song that could Pete Shelley’s finest moment as a songwriter.

The breakup of Buzzcocks was probably inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it had to be permanent. Trailblazers in every way, Buzzcocks were one of the bands that helped established the notion of ahead-of-their-time acts returning to the fray after the time finally started to catch up. Reunion gigs started before the eighties were up, and a new studio album arrived in 1993. In all, Buzzcocks released twice as many albums in the revived iteration as they did the first time around.

 

furs all

775. The Psychedelic Furs, All of This and Nothing (1988)

Approximately one decade deep into their career, the time had clearly come from the Psychedelic Furs to break the seal on the fine art of scavenging their recording history for a “best of” album that could be peddled to masses with curiosity piqued by modest hits but unlikely to hunt down selections from the back catalog. Following the attention roused by a rerecording of early single “Pretty in Pink,” for the movie of the same name, Psychedelic Furs made a clear stab at commercial crossover success with the 1987 album Midnight to Midnight, which worked somewhat. It was their highest-selling album in the U.S. and spawned the band’s sole Top 40 single in the U.S.

The single in question, the gloriously dramatic “Heartbreak Beat,” is present on All of This or Nothing, buried deep in the track listing, as if the band was determined to make the unschooled curious run a proper gauntlet of what came before. It’s a version of the mild combativeness built into the band’s persona, exemplified by frontman Richard Butler’s churlish unwillingness to play the music biz game he’d joined. The lax churn of “All That Money Wants,” the requisite new song recorded for the release, was reflective of his unease with playing shows in front of the band’s set of new fans, indifferent to all but the few songs they knew from MTV, though the typically cryptic lyrics can make that difficult to parse (“I’m drowning in my sleep/ Painted lies on broken lips/ That promise heaven tastes like this/ Came home pushed and full of pins”).

In a college radio station library, All of This and Nothing was essential, and it surely did well on the charts as a new release because there were plenty of student programmers excited to play the likes of “Love My Way” and “Heaven” without whatever restrictions might be in place to prevent overly redundant raiding of the broader library. At the station where I earned my FCC operator permit at the time this album was release, “The Ghost in You” would have been allowed on air no more than once a week, but All of This and Nothing‘s place in rotation meant it could instead be played every day. I suspect were weren’t the only broadcast outlet that boosted this record’s airplay because of such a loophole.

At the time of the collection’s release, there was some scuttlebutt that Psychedelic Furs might be winding down, done in by their own success. The end was indeed nigh, but not quite that nigh. The band’s next studio album, Book of Days, came out the following year.

 

green rem

774. R.E.M., Green (1988)

R.E.M. wasn’t the first band to mimic the journey of the students who played them on college radio and take a career step that resembled graduation, but their leap was probably the most momentous. As college radio came of age in the nineteen-eighties, R.E.M. was without question the band. Every album received saturation airplay on the left end of the dial, and the quartet from Athens, Georgia maintained their indie cred through little acts of rebellion, like staying loyal to their original independent label, pointedly refusing to lip sync in music videos, and keeping record sleeves free of printed lyrics. Green didn’t quite change all of that, but it came close.

Following five studio albums with I.R.S. Records, released at roughly a yearly pace, R.E.M. signed a multimillion dollar deal with Warner Bros., about as a large of an entertainment conglomerate to which they could tether themselves at the time. Gifted with more money and studio time then they’d ever enjoyed before, R.E.M. set out to craft an album that pushed them in slightly unfamiliar directions sonically and creatively. It’s heard clearly in cuts “Pop Song 89,” “Get Up,” and “Stand,” all of which had a gloss and bounce not found on the band’s previous records. Bill Berry, Peter Buck, and Mike Mills went so far as to swap instruments at times, eliminating any overt comfort or complacency.

“We wanted to do something a little different, and also to get away from the whole idea that you had to have bass, drums, and guitar to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Buck later said.

“The Wrong Child” pushes into the unexpected by discordantly layering slight instrumental plucking and emotive vocal work, and “Turn You Inside-Out” adds a bruising abrasion that would later come into fruition on Monster. Michael Stipe’s vocal provides the primary texture on “Hairshirt,” which is almost unbearably tender. The untitled closing track is wistful and sweet, and “You Are the Everything” wears the guise of a standard love song while hinting at deeper meaning in its cryptic lyrics. “World Leader Pretend” is the exception to the no printed lyrics rule, suggesting it is the cut that merits the closest scrutiny, a sort of centerpiece to the record.

“For me, the big moment is ‘World Leader Pretend,'” Stipe later told Rolling Stone. “It’s a tribute to Leonard Cohen, using military terms to describe a battle within. I was so proud of the lyrics and my vocal take that I refused to sing it a second time. I did it once. That was it.”

Given the outlay of money given to R.E.M., and the recent blazing success of their contemporaries U2, there was some expectation that Green was meant to be a blockbuster and any other result would be tragic. Instead, the album performed roughly on par with its predecessor, Document, reaching a similar Billboard album chart peak and producing one Top 10 single. The band’s major commercial breakthrough was still one album away. For that one, they started lip syncing in videos.

 

close smile

773. Close Lobsters, What is There to Smile About (1988)

Hailing from Scotland, Close Lobsters shoved their way onto the U.K. music scene in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, exhibiting the sort of brash indifference to their own success that was irresistible to the music press in their home territories. The band’s first album was released in 1987, but the always eager marketplace demanded more. Or maybe the music biz honchos the band answered to were worried about a fickle audience careening away in search of the next big new thing. Either way, Close Lobsters were obligated to deliver an EP as a swaying bridge in between more significant efforts. In this case, the truncated batch of new tracks, entitled What is There to Smile About, is far more than a stopgap. The EP is sharp and scintillating, better than many of the revered album of the era and indeed topping any of the full-lengths released under the band’s name.

The title cut is a chiming, soaring blast of tuneful cynicism, and it’s matched in its cheerful negativity by the single “Let’s Make Some Plans” (the suggestion of the title is explained by the next lyric: “Cuz they can go wrong”). “Violently Pretty Face” is like a vintage Psychedelic Furs song delivered with greater ease and confidence, as if Close Lobsters had comfortably hit the next developmental phase that was eluding their immediate predecessors in the category of brash tunesmiths.

What is There to Smile About suggests that Close Lobsters could have benefited from a slightly different model than the one that took prominence in their era. The U.K. still had a robust trade in singles and EPs, but the album was king in the States. But the tight economy of two short sides and out was perfect from the Close Lobsters’ brand of catchy insolence. As expected, they released an album — the solid enough Headache Rhetoric — one year later. What is There to Smile About is the better, stronger statement of their artistic capabilities. Not every band needs two long sides.

 

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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