624. Alphaville, Forever Young (1984)
Initially, the music act formed in Germany by Marian Gold, Bernhard Lloyd, and Frank Mertens was called Forever Young. That name was instead reserved for the band’s first album — and one of their first singles — and the trio borrowed a moniker from a French New Wave classic directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Alphaville’s Forever Young was recorded in Berlin across the first half of 1984. Before the album was completely done, the band released the twitchy single “Big in Japan” and watched it become a major worldwide hit. The song topped pop charts in Sweden, Switzerland, Brazil, and the band’s native county, and it also hit the top spot on the U.S. dance chart.
Forever Young is precisely calibrated to suit the dance music scene of the mid-nineteen-eighties, including a lot of clear studio fussing, as if Alphaville wanted to use every last sonic trick they stumbled upon. It’s as if every last trilling trend of the day was blasted onto the record, like it was shot through a dance music prism. “A Victory of Love” is like David Bowie mashed up with Clan of Xymox, for example. Eventually the sounds all start to blend together, taking on a generic, soundtrack-ready quality. There are still momentarily arrested songs strewn about — like “Sounds Like a Melody,” which suggests Falco taking a stab at soul music, or the zingy “Fallen Angel” — but Forever Young is most notable for the way the most distinctive qualities are buffed away.
Across the album, there’s a strong sense that Alphaville isn’t built for endurance. Sure enough, there was lineup churn almost from the beginning. Buckling under the stress of the aspiring pop star grind, Mertens left the band without a few months of the debut album’s release. It would be the first of many defections as Alphaville labored on with new full-length studio releases every few years.
623. Julian Lennon, Valotte (1984)
Julian Lennon was still a teenager when he recorded a set of demos in a French chateau dubbed Valotte. Of course, Lennon wasn’t just any teen. He was a rock ‘n’ roll prince, one of John Lennon’s two sons and the oldest biological child of all the many Beatles offspring. (Paul McCartney adopted daughter, Heather, from his wife Linda’s first marriage, is a few months older than Julian.) Launching his music career just a few years after his father was murdered on a New York City, Julian Lennon was positioned as the leader of a new generation that would simultaneously preserve and transform pop music, just as the Beatles and their cohorts had done in the nineteen-sixties.
Ahmet Ertegun signed Julian Lennon to Atlantic Records and essentially gave him free rein in making a debut album. Lennon went hunting for a producer and settled on Phil Ramone, largely on the basis of his work on Billy Joels’s The Nylon Curtain. Borrowing its title from the French chateau that provided the origin point for Lennon’s nascent career, Valotte was recorded in five different state-of-the-art studios across the U.S., including legendary locales Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and New York’s The Hit Factory. Every bit of prep for the album declared it to be a uniquely important work.
The finished product, however, confirms the suspicion that the famous last name is what stirred the interest in Lennon. He engages in expert aping of his papa on the title cut, a ballad that charted in the Billboard Top 10. Another hit, “Too Late for Goodbyes,” has some of the vaudevillian jauntiness that was found on John Lennon’s posthumous studio release Milk and Honey. There’s no mystery about why these tracks were chosen as singles. Elsewhere, Lennon’s vocal stylings are understandably familiar, but all other aspects of the songs are shockingly anonymous. “On the Phone” is tepid blues rock, and “Space” drifts aimlessly as it attempts some sort of post–fusion rock experimentalism. “Say You’re Wrong” is similar to the Kinks’ music of that era, which was unfortunately not one of the better stretches for the band.
Whatever its limitations, Valotte sold well, eventually earning platinum certification in the U.S. For the next decade or so, Lennon kept releasing albums at a reasonably steady pace. At the same time, Lennon engages in prolonged litigation against his father’s estate, seeking a boost of his stingy inheritance. Following a 1996 settlement, Lennon got a twenty million pound payout. Perhaps coincidentally, he’s only released two new studio albums in the twenty-plus years since.
622. Christmas, In Excelsior Dayglo (1986)
It’s probably fair to note that there wasn’t a booming music scene in Connecticut in the early nineteen-eighties. So drummer Liz Cox and guitarist Michael Cudahy loaded up the car, and they moved Boston. They connected with bassist Dan Salzmann, and the trio began performing under the name Christmas. The band was eventually signed to Big Time Records and partnered with producer Lou Giordano, who was previously best know for his work with bands such as Gang Green and the F.U.’s, specialists in sonic assaults. The resulting album, In Excelsior Dayglo, has a few moments of blistering abandon. Mostly, though, it’s a riotous, rollicking record that bends rock ‘n’ roll as far as it can go without snapping like uncooked spaghetti.
Album opener “Big Plans” is odd and tunefully jagged, like a more listener-friendly Pere Ubu, and it sets the game plan for the album. These songs can go anywhere, roaring down experimental alleyways or pivoting in a reckless search for wild-eyed glory. “Tommy the Truck” plays like a more cantankerous version of the Feelies, and “Pumpkinhead” veers into a relaxed psychobilly. The punchy “Boy’s Town Work Song” and the pogo beat of “The Hottest Sun” offer hints of the band’s inner punk spirit, as does “Fish Eye Sandwich,” which recounts a traumatic meal experience. Songs sometimes start splintering apart before they’re finished; that’s part of the charm.
To a degree, Christmas forecasts the blithe rock deconstructions that would be the lifeblood of bands such as Guided by Voices and Pavement. Cox and Cudahy abandoned that approach before long. After two more albums, they dissolved Christmas and started the cocktail lounge revival act Combustible Edison, about as different of a musical beast as could be conjured up.
621. Tom Waits, Frank’s Wild Years (1987)
In early summer of 1986, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater debuted a new play written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Stacked with new songs, the play followed a vagabond fellow named Frank O’Brien. Frank is stuck in East St. Louis and pining for the California town he left behind. During the course of the play, he interacts with dream visions of four of his closest friends. The play was supposed to be directed by Terry Kinney, one of Steppenwolf’s cofounders. Deep in the rehearsal process, Kinney stepped aside, reportedly because of creative conflicts with Waits. Gary Sinise, another Steppenwolf cofounder and the troupe’s creative director at the time, stepped in and cobbled together a revised version in the mere three weeks before the play’s announced premiere date. The compromised production was not well-received. It closed out Steppenwolf’s tenth season, and Waits departed to follow through on his original plan to record the songs for a new album. The record would have the same name as the play: Frank’s Wild Years.
The album contains the ghost of the loose narrative built Waits built for his songs, and yet it avoids the leadenness of a concept album. Instead, it comes across as simply a marvelous collection of Waits’s patented moody saloon musical storytelling, motifs and inklings recurring from time to time, but not necessarily with any more frequency or narrative purpose than on any of his albums. There are arguably a few more gargled operatics signaling a foundational theatricality that’s unique in the artist’s formidable canon. When a mini-suite emerges — such as the Sinatra-on-a-mescaline-bender combo of “Straight to the Top (Vegas)” and “I’ll Take New York” — the effect is of creative focus and purposeful sequencing rather than a wedging together of tunes tugboating a plot. The carnival rant “I’ll Be Gone” or the tender warble “Please Wake Me Up” are quintessential Waits songs that could comfortably slip into any number of places in Waits’s discography. It’s a strength that they’re more beholden to Tom than Frank.
If Waits felt wounded by the experience at Steppenwolf, it doesn’t show up on the album. He’s in fine fettle throughout, sounding like a bear who’s in his cups on “Straight to the Top (Rhumba)” and the inventor of a new, terrifying form of gospel music on “Way Down in the Hole.” Frank’s Wild Years also boasts some incredibly strong songwriting by Waits, combining rich, inventive melodies with a lyrics that are some of his finest gutter poetry. He infuses “More Than Rain” with a poignant ache (“And it’s more than a bad dream now that I’m sober/ There’s no more dancing, there is no more dancing/ And it’s more than trouble I got myself into/ Nothing but sad times, nothing but sad times”) and crafts a lovely, evocative lament in “Cold Cold Ground,” aided mightily by David Hidalgo, of Los Lobos, who might be the only human being on the planet who can play a plaintive accordion. The latter song gets extra credit for the ahead-of-the-curve lyric “Make a pile of Trump Towers and burn ’em all down.” And then there’s “Innocent When You Dream (Barroom),” which could be the finest four minutes Waits has ever put on record.
If the album Frank’s Wild Years stands apart from its stage play origins, Waits wasn’t quite done with the concept of adding a theatrical flair to his music. For the tour in support of Frank’s Wild Years, Waits revived the idea of playing Frank on stage, essentially structuring concerts around the fictional performance. In addition to the shows, the tour yielded a concert film and a live album. For a little while, anyway, Frank O’Brien was quite the franchise.
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.