College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #744 to #741


744. Robert Palmer, Secrets (1979)

Secrets was the fifth solo album from Robert Palmer and his first after finally enjoying some success on the U.S. pop charts. The flamenco-tinged “Every Kinda People,” from the 1978 album Double Fun, pushed its way into the Billboard Top 20. It would have been wholly understandable if Palmer had tried to replicate the unorthodox sound that led to a modest hit single, but Secrets instead commits a variation on the strategy, slapping the veneer of his favored tepid British blues rock onto a range of pop schemes. It can get quite strange, as with the cover of Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends,” which transforms the iconoclastic performer’s trademark dream pop into something slicked up and commodified.

Mostly, though, the album is inoffensive and eager, a better forecast than most records of the day of how many seventies rockers would artistically position themselves in the decade ahead. “Jealous” is a solid example of this, in that it sounds like the result of Dwight Twilley fronting Night Ranger. Palmer alternates between his own compositions (which are consistently the weakest entrants on the track list) and songs culled from other creators, generally faring best when he turns his metronome to a higher setting. The edgy boogie “Love Stop” and the adrenalized “Woman You’re Wonderful” hold a certain charm in their headlong zip.

If there’s a buckshot blast feel to Palmer’s artistic focus, at least one of the pellets hit the intended target. “Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor),” originally a Moon Mullins song, became Palmer’s second hit. It didn’t climb much higher on the chart than “Every Kinda People,” but it had a more impressive stickiness, remaining solidly in recurrent rotation on more rock-oriented pop stations. It would be Palmer’s last solo turn in the Top 40 until seven years later, when a grinding rock song, boosted considerably by a distinctive music video, gave him by far the biggest hit of his career.


aztec love

743. Aztec Camera, Love (1987)

In practice, the Scottish band Aztec Camera was almost entirely a vehicle for chief songwriter and frontman Roddy Frame. Love, the third album bearing the group’s name, made that rough truth that much more clear. All the other original members of Aztec Camera were gone by this point, and Frame largely recorded the album with a constantly shifting set of session musicians and producers.

It wasn’t only the lineup in flux. Frame was committed to transforming the sound of the band, adopting some of the slicked up techniques he was hearing on R&B records of the day. Some speculated that Frame was fishing for a U.S. hit, a theory further compounded by his choice to record in the album in the States, over the protests of his label. Frame didn’t much care what motivations were being ascribed to him, nor about the mild aspersions that came with the pontificating. He was doing what he wanted, and that was that.

And what he wanted to do was make shiny pop songs, typified by marvelously overstuffed “One & One” and “Everybody is a Number One,” which plays like a more chipper version of Crowded House. “Deep & Wide & Tall”  is tingly and scrubbed clean, which helps it overcome the occasional clanky lyrical turn (“She is the essence pure/ She’s super sure, she’s got the cure”). Even the requisite ballad, “Killermont Street,” practically glimmers through its heavy languidness. Although Frame later said he considered the track to be somewhat out of the step with the rest of the album, the high point is probably “Somewhere in My Heart,” so beautifully crafted it becomes downright irresistible.

If Love truly was meant to crack the U.S. market, it fell short of its chief goal. Aztec Camera’s strongest performer back in the U.K., it only barely slipped into the Billboard 200, falling well short of the peaks of its two predecessors. Frame kept up the Aztec Camera facade for a while longer, hopping officially to a solo career beginning in the mid-nineteen-nineties.


some kind

742. Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack (1987)

In the nineteen-eighties, filmmaker John Hughes was his own little industry inside the larger entertainment business. The ascent was precipitous and rapid, largely because he was was crazily prolific. In the ten-year stretch beginning with National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, release in 1982, and ending on Curly Sue, in late 1991, Hughes had twenty screenplays produced, eight of which he directed. And thanks in large part to associated soundtracks lifting previously obscure bands to the upper reaches of the pop charts, he also had a reputation for sharp music taste that aligned with the coveted teen audience that was often the prime target for his films. MCA Records went so far as to gift the filmmaker with his own vanity label: Hughes Music.

The soundtrack to Some King of Wonderful was the first release on Hughes Music. The film was essentially a loose remake of Pretty in Pink, a Hughes-penned and -produced hit from the previous year that endured notorious studio tinkering, leaving Hughes disgruntled. He reworked the material into more of a drama, jumbled the genders of the story’s love triangle, and, following aborted attempts with others, even hired the Pretty in Pink director, Howard Deutch, to preside over the project.

The soundtrack was the usual Hughes mishmash of obscure acts (preferably from the U.K.) delivering tracks that were just a shade or two more commercial-friendly than their usual offerings. Older releases were raided (“The Hardest Walk,” one of the less beautifully abrasive songs on Psychocandy, earned the Jesus and Mary Chain a spot on the record) and alternated with new recordings (“Cry Like This,” by Blue Room, which is drippy and uncomfortably over-dramatic) resulting in an album that, like most of the similar releases in the nineteen-eighties heyday of soundtracks, feinted at cohesion before ultimately landing at a place of soft confusion.

In its sound, the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack serves as a decent capsule of its era, especially in capturing the kinds of polished, piquant songs that were being crafted by acts trying to hold on to their out-of-the-mainstream bona fides while still raking in some of the extra dollars that came from landing on earworm hits. Pete Shelley’s “Do Anything” almost plays like a cooler version of “Footloose,” and “The Shyest Time,” by the Apartments, is like Marianne Faithfull by way of the Bangles. Bubblegum goth band the March Violets get two tracks, including a surging cover of “Miss Amanda Jones.” There’s a similarly revved up take on “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Lick the Tins, though in more of a twee and chipper way.

It’s not entirely how clear how many more albums were released under the Hughes Music banner. Hughes’s other 1987 release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, does bear that stamp on the soundtrack, but the following year’s set of songs connected to his She’s Having a Baby was on I.R.S. Records. And the filmmaker’s adeptness at cultivating unexpected music hits was also starting to wane, as was his evident interest. Except for the feeble swipe of the soundtrack to Career Opportunities, none of Hughes’s dwindling nineteen-nineties output was connected with a set of songs anyone would be expected to remember.



741. Tommy Keene, Songs from the Film (1986)

When Tommy Keene embarked on recording his major label debut, he found himself in a sadly common dilemma. His new record label, Geffen Records, had signed him because they liked the music he was making, notably a pair of EPs on Dolphin Records that received loving attention from college radio programmers. But the execs at his new corporate home didn’t like what Keene was doing well enough to let him keep doing it his way. Keene had been working with producers T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon, hardly  scuffling neophytes. Burnett and Dixon had laudable reputations among music critics and the left of the dial crowd, but they didn’t exactly polish material into a form that suggested a crossover to the pop charts was a likelihood. Geffen vetoed Keene working with his preferred producers and assigned to the project Geoff Emerick, whose long history included engineering work on Beatles records, and who had most recently overseen records from the likes of Elvis Costello and Nick Heyward.

Emerick’s charge was clearly to add a slick sheen to Keene’s songs. The singer-songwriter operated somewhere in between the timeless rock ‘n’ roll craftsmanship of Marshall Crenshaw and the earthy emotionalism of John Hiatt. Instead, Emerick’s heavy spit and polish makes Keene’s Songs from the Film sound a little like Bryan Adams’s Reckless as made by a far more skilled songwriter. That might sound dire, but it’s really not, mostly because Keene’s craft is truly formidable. “In Our Life” has the easy, chiming perfection of the best entries from Let’s Active or Game Theory, and “Gold Town” sounds like a version of R.E.M. with a little more menace in their souls. And there no producing hand heavy enough to obscure the pleasures of the ruminative and churning “My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe.” A cover of Lou Reed’s “Kill Your Sons” is ultimately too blundering to be effective, but the Keene originals are uniformly crisp and winning.

As the fitful genesis of Songs from the Film suggests, Keene and Geffen Records were an ill fit. There was only one more album by Keene released on the label (the excellent Based on Happy Times, in 1989) before they parted ways, leaving Keene to bounce from one smaller outlet to the next for the remainder of his career. Keene passed away unexpectedly in November, 2018. He was 59 years old.

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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