College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #648 to #645

byrne catherine

648. David Byrne, The Catherine Wheel (1981)

In September, 1981, next to an ad for the retrograde comedy Carbon Copy (in which George Segal plays a man who is shocked to discover he has a black, adult son, played by Denzel Washington in his film debut), The New York Times reviewed a new dance production choreographed by Twyla Tharp. Titled The Catherine Wheel, the eighty-minute piece was set to music composed and recorded by David Byrne, in between the fourth and fifth studio albums by his day job, Talking Heads.

“In this commissioned score of some 23 separate pieces of music, Mr. Byrne offers overlay upon overlay — percussion and drums, melody and the hallucinatory, dreamlike electronic sound that soothes the ear when the throb threatens to go on just too long,” critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote, part of an assessment that generally panned the overall work.

Byrne slightly pared down the nearly two dozen tracks, releasing The Catherine Wheel as a full-length album several weeks later. Arriving the same year as My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, an album co-billed with Brian Eno, and with no new Talking Heads album in the offing, it seemed as though Byrne was prepared to strike out on his own. Already positioned somewhat as the prime driver of his acclaimed band, the perception of Byrne as an iconoclastic, singular genius, with others in his orbit as mere supporting players, was starting to take hold. Within five years, Byrne nabbed a Time magazine cover, touting him as “Rock’s Renaissance Man.”

Understandably, a good amount of the material on The Catherine Wheel plays like appealing scraps without quite enough quality to merit prime placement on a Talking Heads album. “What a Day That Was” and “Big Blue Plymouth (Eyes Wide Open)” are probably the prime examples, and both made their way into the band’s live repertoire, with the former receiving prominent placement in the exceptional concert film Stop Making Sense. “My Big Hands” similarly taps into a vein of new wave anxiety that makes it easy to place on Byrne’s creative continuum.

Elsewhere on the album, Byrne is drawing on what he’s done before while edging in the direction of other avenues. The tingly feel to “His Wife Refused” and the abstract funk of “Poison” suggest Byrne is crafting songs for the dance floor of the future. And the weird swirls of sound found on “The Red House” further suggest a restless desire to escape all his strictures, whether handed down by the broader music industry or self-imposed. Like a lot of Byrne’s solo (or semi-solo) outings, The Catherine Wheel is messy in its wide-net explorations, as likely to repel as to engage. Whatever the reaction, the oddball ambition is difficult to deny.

 

geils sanctuary

647. The J. Geils Band, Sanctuary (1978)

Across seven years and as many albums, the J. Geils Band were on Atlantic Records. Although one of the storied labels of the day, Atlantic never quite managed to push the Boston-area band to greater prominence in the rock ‘n’ roll marketplace. J. Geils Band amassed a smattering of Top 40 hits, all making only modest headway in that range of the chart, and one gold album. Mostly, though, they toiled away, knocking out capable rock records that were maybe the third or fourth choice of fans, only when they were feeling a little saturated with Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.

Craving a rejuvenation, J. Geils Band moved to EMI Records and decided to freshen up their sound, largely by making keyboard parts slightly more prominent in the mix. The initial result was the album Sanctuary, which brought them their second gold album and helped them revisit the Top 40 for the first time in four years. It was “One Last Kiss,” the album’s lead single, that made it into Billboard‘s hallowed ground. Mid-tempo and moderately retro, the track sounds like a fine bar band number, delivered with better-than-average aplomb. The piano ballad “Teresa” has a different vibe, but it’s similarly constructed as if meant to perfectly fill a barroom space, prompting a wistful, woozy sing-along at closing time.

“Take It Back” is an easy-going anthem of the lovelorn (“You play with my heart/ There’s no doubt about/ Crazy ’bout you girl/ I’ll stand up and shout it”), and the album’s title cut has an era-specific feel of rock ‘n’ roll in transition, tinted by the influences of the emerging new wave, that anticipates the shaky explorations taken by the Rolling Stones on Emotional Rescue, released two years later. The spirited rock jam “I Can’t Believe You” and the Springsteen-esque “I Don’t Hang Around Much Anymore” also showcase a band in creative transition, reflecting the sounds around them while also, ever so slightly, moving them forward.

 

joel 52nd

646. Billy Joel, 52nd Street (1978)

“We were kinda channeling all this jazz stuff, even though we weren’t jazz musicians by any means,” Billy Joel said of the album 52nd Street, his sixth solo effort. “We were rock ‘n’ roll guys. But I always felt like an adult when I tackled jazz, like the breakdown in the middle of ‘Zanzibar’ or the Latin jazz feel of ‘Rosalinda’s Eyes.’

At the time Joel and his band recorded the album, his label, Columbia Records, was headquartered on 52nd Street, and the studio when the tracks were laid down, A&R Recording, was located on the same metropolitan thoroughfare. It was that jazz influence on Joel’s mind when he named the album, since the small stretch between Fifth Avenue and Seventh Avenue was absolutely packed with clubs when the music form shot to prominence in the decades around World War II. Blessed with sudden success after years of toiling away, Joel took the time to pay tribute to his influences, drawing on forms that were foundational to the American sound and also fading away as rock and pop took prominence.

Following the massive smash of The Stranger, his commercial breakthrough, Joel was trying to show his range while also maintaining a place on the charts. By most fair measures, he was successful in both tasks. 52nd Street was hailed by critics and nabbed the Grammy for Album of the Year, and three of its singles — “My Life,” “Big Shot,” and “Honesty” — made it into the Billboard Top 40. That the singles were arguably the three songs least representative of the album’s jazzy soul (“Big Shot,” in particular, signal the arena rock posturing that was define Joel’s next studio album, Glass Houses) was an incidental concern. The album fared well on the charts, too, becoming Joel’s first to climb to the top spot.

 

reo hi

645. REO Speedwagon, Hi Infidelity (1980)

Hailing from Champaign, Illinois, REO Speedwagon spent the nineteen-seventies as the quintessential hard-working, under-noticed rock band, playing straight-ahead music to a small, devoted audience. Beginning with their self-titled debut, released in 1971, REO Speedwagon delivered eight studio albums across the decade, getting only the barest whiffs of commercial success. Their highest-charting single in that span was “Time for Me to Fly,” which peaked at #56, two spots higher than its immediate predecessor, “Roll with the Changes.” The album Hi Infidelity, released late in 1980, changed everything.

There’s no marked transition on Hi Infidelity. REO Speedwagon takes the exact same approach as always on the album, dishing out a series of gleaming pop-rock songs built around ludicrously catchy hooks and played with sharp professionalism. But something about the album’s material clicked in a whole new way, beginning with the lead single “Keep on Loving You,” a perpetually swelling ballad that made it all the way to the top of the Billboard chart. Subsequent singles “Take It on the Run,” “Don’t Let Him Go,” and the retro charmer “In Your Letter” all spent time in the Top 40, helping inspire radio programmers to revisit some of the earlier music from REO Speedwagon. A big batch of their songs became staples of rock radio through the nineteen-eighties.

To date, Hi Infidelity has sold over ten million copies.

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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