College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #728 to #725

joan key

728. Joan Armatrading, The Key (1983)

Joan Armatrading was deep into her career when she released The Key, and she was ready for a little more commercial success.

“I would like to sell more records in America, not so people could look at me walking down the street and say ‘There’s Joan Armatrading,’ but I would like to walk down a street and hear someone singing my songs,” she told Orange Coast magazine at the time. “That would be great.”

Armatrading’s label, A&M Records, harbored similar aspirations, though they were a little more impatient. After Armatrading turned in the album, execs came back to her with the dreaded and commonplace complaint that they didn’t hear a hit. Produced by Steve Lillywhite, a previous collaborator of Armatrading’s who was also producing on U2’s War at about the same time,  The Key was hardly without charm, even the kind of bright, catchy ingenuity that often found a place on the pop charts. “(I Love It When You) Call Me Names” plays with the the jagged post-disco that scored Kim Carnes a massive hit with “Bette Davis Eyes,” and tracks such as fierce, gnarled “Tell Tale” and the barbed wire gauntlet of “The Dealer” carry the kind of brusque authority that appealed to album rock radio. Lillywhite arguably brings too heavy a hand to the ballads — “Everybody Gotta Know” is thickly overproduced — but that approach was hardly a dealbreaker fror radio programmers.

Despite the relative strength of the material she’d already turned in, Armatrading acquiesced, penning a pair of songs that were recorded with Val Garay, who’d in fact produced the previously mentioned smash for Carnes. “Drop the Pilot”  is anthemic and soaring, taking full advantage of Armatrading’s rich, deep vocals. The other song, “What Do Boys Dream,”  is built upon tricky rhythms seemingly drawn from Armatrading’s Caribbean birthplace. They’re both strong, but don’t especially outdistance the other tracks. A&M made them both singles, and “Drop the Pilot” did become the sole Armatrading offering to crack the Billboard Hot 100, albeit peaking at a modest #78.

 

longtwo

727. The Long Ryders, Two Fisted Tales (1987)

The Long Ryders had every reason to believe stardom was imminent in the months surrounding the release of Two Fisted Tales, their third full-length studio effort. They had champions in the music press, members of R.E.M. were proclaiming their own ascendancy would be used to help their favored cohorts (supposedly insisting, “Soon as we get through making the Replacements famous you guys are next!”), and their labelmates U2 tapped them to serving as one of the support acts on the tour behind The Joshua Tree. As it happened, though, Two Fisted Tales never broke, and the band dissolved within a year of its release.

Produced by Ed Stasium, who’d overseen some of the strongest releases by the Smithereens and Ramones, Two Fisted Tales certainly charges forward like world domination is the goal. The raw barroom snarl of “Gunslinger Man” and the jabbing “Long Story Short” sound like they’re meant to make other rock songs bend a knee in respect. “I Want You So Bad” sounds like the little stretch when Brian Setzer put away overtly retro tomfoolery in favor of earnest Americana, and “Spectacular Fall” is what might have resulted if Julian Cope had offered to team up with the Alvin brothers on a new version of the Blasters. The groups demonstrates they know how and when to call upon collaborators in their Los Angeles stomping grounds, as when Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo squeezes his accordion to provide just a little extra tang on “The Light Gets in the Way.” There are also little signs that Long Ryders may not have been able to push past the fairly narrow constraints of their own sound. “Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home,” a seeming attempt to pen a spiritual-influenced folk classic, is a clunker.

The band started to splinter apart with key members leaving to pursue other paths. Island Records was game for another record, but the remaining Ryders decided not to keep what remained of the band together. As is the case with many of the neglected college radio bands of that era, reunions happened, eventually leading to an unlikely follow-up to Two Fisted Tales. Under the Long Ryders banner, Psychedelic Country Soul was released in February 2019.

 

twins future

726. Thompson Twins, Here’s to Future Days (1985)

Thompson Twins were riding the whirlwind while recording their fifth studio album, Here’s to Future Days. Their previous release, Into the Gap, had been a true breakthrough, yielding three Top 5 singles at home in the U.K. and making them staples of MTV, the rapidly emerging behemoth of pop culture tastemaking. In the midst of the sessions, they jaunted from the New York city studio where they were working with producer Nile Rodgers down to Philadelphia in order to perform at Live Aid, where no less than Madonna pitched in on backing vocals during their set. This was a band reaching a peak, or maybe starting to teeter at the tippy top, with inevitable descent looming. Also during the sessions, band leader Tom Bailey collapsed in his hotel room. A diagnosis of nervous exhaustion was given.

It was Bailey’s illness that helped prompt the hiring of Rodgers, presumably to take some pressure off. As would be expected, Rodgers upped the guitars and the slick studio sheen. His presence is clear on the track “Tokyo,” which takes some unfortunate turns in the lyrics (“Pepsi Cola/ Wax Tempura/ Yamamoto/ Sayonara”), but also collects a teetering stack of studio elements that coheres into something catchy and even a little giddy. Much of the album boasts a similar sound, trying to straddle the corner border between disco, rock, funk, and broader dance music. Understandably, it’s just a mess at times. “Don’t Mess with Doctor Dream” is as dopey as the title implies, and the weird new wave lounge of “You Killed the Clown” is oddly flavorless. The stabs at social awareness get lost in the taffy tangles, notably a painfully vapid cover of the Beatles’ “Revolution” and the overstuffed “Love is the Law,” which devolves into a series of tangled platitudes (“Fighting in the name of religion/ Another senseless contradiction/ So when you feel like getting rough ‘n’ tough/ Remember no excuse is good enough”).

Here’s to Future Days boasts a pair of solid hits — both Top 10 in the U.S. — and they’re worthy of the affection they engendered. “Lay Your Hands on Me” finds the Thompson Twins outdoing Howard Jones at his own game of keening, mid-tempo pop, and “King for a Day” is bright and infectious. They build on what the band had done before, but add in greater complexity, craft, and charm. Basically, the cuts show the band growing in exactly the way a band is supposed to grow.

Bailey has implied that, at the time of Here’s to Future Days, everyone in Thompson Twins was getting worn out with the trappings of pop success they’d chased. Joe Leeway, who played percussion and keyboards for the band, stepped away after this album, leaving Bailey and percussionist Alannah Currie to continue. They released three more studio albums as Thompson Twins and a pair of later records under the name Babble before closing shop for good in the mid-nineteen-nineties.

 

tom tom

725. Tom Tom Club, Tom Tom Club (1981)

Talking Heads were on hiatus, so bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz needed something to do with their time. They invited along guitarist Adrian Belew, whose Gump-ian carousing through the coolest stops in rock ‘n’ roll history including time in the Talking Heads touring band, and went down to the Bahamas. Recruiting musicians from the region, the ad hoc assemblage of performers held their first rehearsal in a place called the Tom Tom Club and figured that was as good a name as any for their new unit. After a few months in the Nassau’s Compass Point Studios, they emerged with a self-titled album.

Tom Tom Club is full of odd and delightful explorations, as if every idea gets equal time. So much is happening on album opener “Wordy Rappinghood” that it’s as if the track is drawing simultaneously from every disco in the world, including one where some upstart is trying out this new style of vocals called rapping. The album’s other track of sizable fame, “Genius of Love,” is a lovely, breezy morsel of pop reinvention, pinging and zinging and draping a loving arm around the listener’s shoulder like a friend who’s third tequila shot is just kicking in. Across the album, the rhythms take a starring role, whether the skittering tempo that almost takes on a spooky tinge on “As Above, So Below” or appropriately charging fervor of “On, On, On, On…”

Tom Tom Club might have been a side project, but it proved to be about as commercially success and the Weymouth and Frantz’s day gig. The album peaked in the charts in the rough vicinity of the most recent Talking Heads releases, and “Genius of Love” made the Top 40, a feat no Talking Heads original had achieved to that point. It was notable enough that a few minutes of Stop Making Sense, the 1984 Talking Heads concert film, were turned over to Weymouth and Frantz to lead a performance of “Genius of Love,” a courtesy not extended to Jerry Harrison for anything off his hiatus album, The Red and the Black.

 

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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