College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #724 to #721


724. Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)

Looking at the list to this point, I wonder if Thriller was a major catalyst for the shift in the music college radio played, or, more accurately, what college radio chose not to play any more. Within a year of its release, Thriller vaulted to the top of list of all-time best-selling albums in the U.S., on its way to a staggering count of over thirty-three million records moved. (These days, its total sales numbers are only surpassed by the first greatest hits release from the Eagles.) All six singles officially released from Thriller went Top 10, including two chart-toppers, and the album itself logged thirty-seven weeks at the peak of the Billboard album chart, occasionally ceding the spot in what was essentially a yearlong run, with only the Police’s Synchronicity displacing it for a notable length of time.

Presumably, a certain number of student programmers surveyed that massive success — the level of sensation around Thriller was impossible to avoid — and wondered what purpose was served by giving chunks of their precious, left-of-the-dial airtime to a record that was not lacking in exposure elsewhere. The first CMJ album chart, published in a 1978 demo issue, is strewn with popular releases, more or less indistinguishable from a list of titles moving briskly in record stores, with only a clear aversion to disco setting it apart. By the time I plopped my sneakered feet into a college radio broadcast booth ten years later, rejecting almost song, album, or artist that was immediately recognizable to the casual music fan. The emergence of artists pitched straight to college radio was surely a significant part of the evolution (R.E.M.’s debut album, Murmur, arrived four months after Thriller‘s release), but my theory is that Thriller was the album that initiated philosophical self-questioning about what music should shimmy through these higher education transmitters.

Of course, Thriller is now problematic for entirely different reasons. The troubling personal predilections of Michael Jackson were long the subject of speculation and callous jokes, but the recent documentary Leaving Neverland has altered the conversation. It might not be the closing argument on the artist’s legacy, but it seem to the be the point at which the jury has started to turn.


minutemen mersh

723. Minutemen, Project: Mersh (1985)

“We wanted to see if it would fuck with people’s, critics’ heads, our fans’ heads, the radio people’s heads, yeah, because they pigeonhole you and then they’ll leave you there forever,” bassist Mike Watt explained when asked about Project: Mersh, the EP that served as the follow-up to the masterful double album Double Nickels on the Dime. “We think we should be competing with all the bands and not be relegated to any area, so we’ll show ’em. You want choruses and fade-outs, huh?”

Econo-jammers unparalleled, Minutemen experienced their first real commercial success of note with Double Nickels on the Dime, albeit a highly modest version of such music biz stardom. Joe Carducci, the co-owner of SST Records, thought there was a chance to capitalize on the swelling attention. He suggested that Minutemen quickly record a new EP so fresh material could be lobbed out to college radio programmers. The plan was to put a little more money into the process and polish the material. Watt and his bandmates, lead vocalist/guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley, agreed to work on the record, though with a certain bit of dismissive irony. Borrowing Watt’s characteristically off-kilter term to refer to material eagerly courting a wide commercial audience, the EP was dubbed Project: Mersh.

Even many years later, its odd to hear light R&B horns providing added texture on a Minutemen song, as with “The Cheerleaders,” which finds Boon crooning out wavering notes as he delivers his invective against political complacency: “When you hear them and call your name/ Can you count the lives they will take?/ Do you have to see the body bags/ Before you make a stand?” As a stab at the pop charts, it remains strikingly esoteric. “Take Our Test” sound jubilant enough that some level of crossover would have been conceivable, but even the requisite cover — a take on Steppenwolf’s “Hey Lawdy Mama” that sounds like a hungover version of the Beat Farmers — wasn’t likely to capture the previously unconverted. The marvelous “Tour-Spiel” is maybe the clearest example of the band forging a sound that could grip the attention of the masses, if only because of the way it forecasts the moment in the mid-nineteen-nineties when grunge gave way to indie rock.

Project: Mersh was released in early 1985. Before the year was up, tragedy would strike the band when Boon was killed in a van accident. The EP provides evidence of just the sort of range, skill, and inspiration that was lost.


verlaine flash

722. Tom Verlaine, Flash Light (1987)

The consensus view of Tom Verlaine’s Flash Point, his fifth solo effort, was that it represented a return from exile. It had been three years since his previous album, ages in the timetable of the nineteen-eighties, and Verlaine reportedly spent much of the gap lounging in Europe, though he often claimed he never really left his home of New York City. Accentuating the tale of revival, Flash Point was Verlaine’s bow on IRS Records, arguably the dominant label of college radio, thanks largely to its status as the home of R.E.M. (even if the band was about to make the leap to major label Warner Bros.). As Verlaine’s former band, Television, only grew in retrospective prominence, he was poised to make a statement of enduring artistic viability.

Flash Point was well-regarded upon its release, and Verlaine made the promotional rounds with the aplomb of practiced indifference. Now it sounds overly tethered to the era in which it was released, vacated of the forceful personality that defined Verlaine’s strongest work. An artist who previously stood apart seems as if he’s trying to elbow his way into the scrum of college rock upstarts. “Say a Prayer” is like Psychedelic Furs when they’re trying to play nice, and “At 4 A.M.” sidles up to the homespun sound of Let’s Active, at least if Lou Reed stepped in as guest vocalist. Both “Song” and “Annie’s Telling Me” could be easily mistaken for Lloyd Cole. They’re all passable tracks, but lacking in zest. The only time the album lapses into a more dire space is on “The Scientist Writes a Letter,” which is painfully reminiscent of the Pink Floyd albums after Roger Waters left.

Flash Light did well enough, but didn’t meet the lofty expectations affixed to it. Another three years passed before his next studio outing, and by that time I.R.S. Records had lost interest, leaving the album, entitled The Wonder, to be released solely by Verlaine’s U.K. label, Fontana Records. Also by that time, getting Television back together started to shimmer into focus as an appealing prospect.


camle breathless

721. Camel, Breathless (1978)

Breathless was the sixth studio album by the U.K. prog rock band Camel, and they were experiencing some of the common tumult of groups with several miles on the odometer. Conflict-driven personnel changes had dogged the band in recent years, and Breathless ushered in a major one when keyboardist Peter Bardens quit at the end of the recording sessions, citing creative conflicts with guitarist Andrew Latimer as the impetus for his departure. Some might claim to hear evidence of the discord in the album’s grooves, but I find the material to be too polished to make such claims wholly credible. Any confusion is more probably attributable to a band with a very particular speciality colliding with major musical trends — disco and punk rock, most prominently — that made their output feel strained and quaint.

Like most acts of the day, Camel nudges up to disco and tries a tentative embrace. “Summer Lightning” was hardly going to topple Donna Summer or Bee Gees from their perches, but the groove is unmistakable angling for the consideration on the dance charts. That cut is a relative rarity, though, and most of the album locks into the mode exemplified by “Echoes,” existing in some sort of netherworld between prog rock and fusion jazz. Camel roams freely across that terrain, leading to everything from the irredeemably drippy “You Make Me Smile” to the ambitious “Wing and a Prayer,” on which the heavy layering of instrumental trickery becomes mere clutter. To their credit, the band also has moments when the pretension falls away and an appealing playfulness stands in its place. “Down on the Farm” has a little Cheap Trick chunkiness to its opening guitar clamor, then it quickly settles into an ever so British recounting of the provincial life that could stand proudly next to similar frippery from the likes of the Small Faces and the Kinks.

If the evolving music scene was threatening to leave Camel behind, the band wasn’t going to simply fade away. They continued making records well into the nineteen-eighties,


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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