College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #656 to #653


656. The Headboys, The Headboys (1979)

“At the time, it was important to construct an image,” guitarist Lou Lewis noted in explaining the origins of his band the Headboys. “I got a pretty severe haircut and went to the schoolwear shop on Commercial Street. I bought a school shirt, tie, and blazer, and wore them with white Kickers and skintight jeans. I was due to meet the guys at a pub in Edinburgh and I turned up like that. The next thing I knew, they were off to do the same.”

After starting operations as a band called Badger, the Scottish quartet adopted the name the Headboys and became the subject of a small bidding war between record companies. They eventually settled on Robert Stigwood’s RSO Records, deciding it was going to be more fun recording for it, and the band set out to make their first album, all before they’d played a live gig together. The Headboys was released, heralded by the modest hit single “The Shape of Things to Come,” which sounds like choice power pop with a prog rock hangover. Musically, it’s one of those songs that encapsulates the end of the nineteen-seventies, as one form was giving way to others.

The Headboys is full of strange little gems that reflect and refract the era. “Stepping Stones” has the crispness and ease of Pete Townshend’s solo work, and “Experiments” could fit nicely onto one of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled efforts. There’s a nifty jitterbug bounce to “The Breakout,” and “The Ripper” comes across as the product of a veddy British version of Kiss. Some other finger-swirls in the zeitgeist haven’t aged as well. “Schoolgirls” is pretty gross, and another sign that lecherous pining after teenaged girls was evidently as obligatory for late-seventies male performers as invective against Margaret Thatcher was for U.K. punks bands was a few years later.

Some European touring followed, including at least one gig at which some Irish upstarts going by the name U2 opened up for them, but the Headboys were mostly interested in getting back into the studio to record their next album, at least initially. As they were finishing up their sophomore album, the group collectively decided they were worn out by the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. They called it quits, and the new material they recorded went unreleased for over thirty years, finally showing up in 2013, on a CD dubbed The Lost Album.


princ 99

655. Prince, 1999 (1982)

1999 was Prince’s fourth full-length studio effort, but, in practically every respect, the double album was where his artistic revolution began. To dispense with the pun quickly, 1999 was the first album to feature his most famed backing band, though the Revolution doesn’t receive the same prominent official billing they’d enjoy on subsequent releases. The album also provided a major commercial breakthrough for Prince. Three years after his sole Top 40 single to that point, 1999 delivered three different songs into the glory land of the Billboard chart, and the album itself was Prince’s first to reach the Top 10 and log multi-platinum sales. Those formidable achievements aside, 1999 is significant because it was arguable the first instance of the Prince asserted the full force of his unique musical genius.

The astonishing side one is enough to settle any debate about the album’s greatness. “1999,” “Delirious,” and “Little Red Corvette” arrive in succession, an opening so potent that even the most aggressively stacked greatest hits collections can’t touch it. No other stretch of the album truly approaches that early, dizzying peak, but there are mind-spinning concoctions of sound all over. The jittery “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” and the sweet soul groove of “International Lover” attest to the Prince’s easy mastery of whatever style he adopts, and other tracks offer equally convincing evidence of his ease in drawing boundaries only to stroll past them. Sometimes only fanciful metaphor will do, as with “D.S.M.R.,” with its floaty, buzzing quality that suggests the funk song an especially cool bumblebee might cook up.

As the album wears on, Prince sometimes lets songs meander, drawing dangerously close to mere noodling. “Lady Cab Driver” extends the blithe straying to the lyrics (“Help me girl I’m drownin’, mass confusion in my head/ Will you accept my tears to pay the fare?”), but any problems are minor, counterbalanced completely by the churning nebulae of pure invention. It’s almost undeniable that a major artist in emerging in the album’s grooves. “Automatic” might be the clearest forecast of the relentless innovation and unchecked mastery that Prince would deploy on his next album, the mega-selling Purple Rain.


game real

654. Game Theory, Real Nighttime (1985)

On the sophomore release from the California-based band Game Theory, the primacy of frontman and chief songwriter Scott Miller was affirmed. Following a tour meant to showcase the new music they’d created, Game Theory essentially fell apart, with every member except Miller leaving the band for various reasons. The album’s original group shot front cover was hastily replaced with a photo of only Miller, and the band personnel were officially billed as simply contributing musicians, with no higher status that the studio players recruited to help fill out certain tracks. Real Nighttime was still a Game Theory album, but it represented the establishment of Game Theory as Miller and whoever he brought along with him.

Working with producer Mitch Easter, who was sought out by Miller because he was impressed by R.E.M.’s Chronic Town, Game Theory delivers an album of limber, expressive pop-rock, bearing the Americana-touched sound and eager earnestness of mid-nineteen-eighties college rock. Cascading “24,” anxious, forceful “Friend of the Family,” and echoing mid-tempo number “She’ll Be a Verb” sound as though they were produced in a lab to appeal to serenely sincere student broadcasters hovering around the age of twenty. Growing into young adulthood was a theme Miller explored on the album, and the music has the quality of shifting between enthusiasm and hesitancy familiar to anyone whose struggled to find their way in their post-collegiate years.

Game Theory comes across like a gentler Joe Jackson on “I Mean It This Time,” and unleashes a nice college rock nugget spiced with squalling synth work in “Curse of the Frontierland.” Completing the portrait of a band settling comfortably into their time and place, there’s an appropriately aching, spectral cover of Big Star’s “You Can’t Have Me,” which is a calling card of impeccable taste for obscure, inspired ancestral artists. Real Nighttime is steady and lovely, ideally crafted to enrapture music fans glued to the left end of the radio dial. It’s also so specifically attuned to those fans that it’s almost impossible to imagine it gaining much traction anywhere else. Some bands of the era shimmered with the possibility of crossover. Game Theory sounded like they were destined to stay put.



653. Robbie Robertson, Robbie Robertson (1987)

In late November of 1976, in the early morning hours, Robbie Robertson stood on stage with the band and played the final notes of “Don’t Do It.” He stepped to the microphone and waved at the crowd as he said, “Thank you. Good night. Goodbye.” The Last Waltz concert was complete and the members of the Band were off to pursue other endeavors. As the chief songwriter of the group, it was widely assumed that Robertson would soon embark on a solo career. Instead, Robertson meandered in his entertainment career, starring alongside Jodie Foster and Gary Busey in the gloomy 1980 drama Carny and serving as music supervisor for several pictures directed by Martin Scorsese, who’d also turned the Last Waltz into a concert film. Even when the time came for Robertson to finally craft a solo album, his pace was slow. He first announced the intention to record in 1983, made preliminary agreements in 1984, hired producer Daniel Lanois in 1985, and started recording in 1986.

Led by the breathless cheerleading of Rolling Stone, by then solidly committing to worshipping any new album dropped by a rocker who qualified as an old hand, Robbie Robertson was met with an enthusiastic reception. Robertson was the beneficiary of MTV airplay and got booked as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. His long history was invoked to highlight the album’s pedigree and the presence of comparative newcomers — including members of U2, BoDeans, and Lone Justice — as guest performers on the record provided the endorsement of cool new kids. Robbie Robertson felt like an event.

If all that attention were puffing up a weak album, it would seem desperate and misguided. Instead, Robbie Robertson is a sterling effort, rich in evocative feeling and graced with remarkably sharp songwriting. Robertson is an iffy frontman, stating songs as much as singing, but the withdrawn emotions suit the material in the same way Tom Waits’s froggy gargle brings the correct personality to his tales of barroom woe. Robertson is more than capable of conveying the quiet pain in ballad “Broken Arrow” and the crushing desire in “Sweet Fire of Love.” His plainspokenness accentuates the humid storytelling of “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” and the resigned recounting of hardscrabble lives on “Sonny Got Caught in the Moonlight.” As a tribute to doomed celebrities James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe, “American Roulette” probably skews too literal in its lyrics (“Lord, please save his soul/ He was the King of Rock and Roll”), but I’ve never been able to resist its hard rock conviction.

Robbie Robertson didn’t usher in an era of prolific music-making for the performer. Though the follow-up, Storyville, arrived a reasonable four years later, the span between each new album from Robertson grew ever longer. In the thirty years following his debut, Robertson released only three true solo albums.


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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