620. Throwing Muses, House Tornado (1988)
Hailing from Boston and famously signed to esoteric U.K. label 4AD, Throwing Muses spent the first chunk of their recording career adhering to a release model more typical of British acts. Over the course of 1986 and 1987, Throwing Muses put out three EPs, making certain London shops always had new music to promote. But the shorter releases had a tougher time getting a foothold in U.S. record stores. When Sire Records picked up the rights to release Throwing Muses material in the States, a full-length effort was called for. House Tornado, the band’s sophomore studio album, arrived in late spring of 1988. Sire, pushing for a breakthrough in the band’s homeland, replaced the very 4AD montage cover art with a stark, stylized image of the band rocking out on a front lawn, as if they were the cool chick version of the Georgia Satellites.
It was folly to position Throwing Muses as straightforward rockers, but a lot of the material on House Tornado has a pleasing edginess to it. The fevered agitation of “Juno” and the galloping tempo of “Marriage Tree” position Throwing Muses as practitioners of an artier, more elusive version of the jangled nerve heartland rock that was the lifeblood of college radio through the mid–nineteen-eighties. They even approximate a Feelies type of jittery energy on “Drive.” The tangly fluidity of “Run Letter” is a better indicator of where Throwing Muses would head in the future, but most of the House Tornado is marked by a purposefully disconcerting sonic jaggedness.
As was usually the case with the band’s early configuration most of the songwriting was handled by Kristin Hersh, with a couple tracks set aside for her bandmate and stepsister, Tanya Donelly (referred to as “Tea,” according to the Sire Records press release that accompanied the album). “The River” finds Donelly in a sharp, tingly mode that aligns nicely with the rest of the record. “Giant” is more fascinating because of the way its shifting tempos and keening melody forecasts the sparer, more experimental tracks from Belly, the band Donelly formed when she finally decided that a token couple of songs per album wasn’t going to keep her creatively satisfied.
House Tornado didn’t cross over to the degree Sire Records hoped, but it did further establish Throwing Muses as college radio favorites. Realistically, there were few other places the band’s lovely discordance was ever likely to fit.
619. Depeche Mode, Black Celebration (1986)
When Depeche Mode released Black Celebration, their fifth studio album, the ill-informed assumption was that the band was venturing into witch-and-warlock gloom. Lead singer Dave Gahan explained the album’s animating premise was more more mundane.
“It’s actually about how most people in life don’t have anything to celebrate,” Gahan said at the time. “They go to work every day and then go down the pub and drown their sorrows. That’s what it’s about: celebrating the end of another black day.”
The oblique lyrics on the album-opening title cut only hint at a commemoration of workaday persistence (“I want to take you in my arms/ Forgetting all I couldn’t do today”), but musically the track conveys Gahan’s sentiment ably. It’s a disco song for people too weary to dance, its redundant sense of straggling purpose a mirror of the clock-punching grind of the survived day. As a singular effort, it’s an intriguing piece of stealth art pop, with familiar dance music elements tempered by heavy-footed energy dampeners. Spread out across a whole album, the acknowledgment of spiritual exhaustion starts to infect the music.
“A Question of Time” is clunking dance music, and the fussy layering on “Sometimes” comes across as an unsuccessful attempt at forestalling studio boredom. “A Question of Lust” merely drifts, the mild salaciousness of the title obscuring an overall drabness to the song (“It’s a question of lust/ It’s a question of trust/ It’s a question of not letting what we’ve built up/ Crumble to dust”). And anyone who wonders what the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” would be like if it were conceived as an incredibly tepid goth rock finds their answer with “Dressed in Black.” One of the few tracks that stands out is “Here is the House,” mostly because it stands as the clearest precursor to the aching pop that would make the album Violator into a major hit a few years later.
Black Celebration was a solid performer for Depeche Mode at the time of its release, though received somewhat indifferently by a music press that was feeling a bit uncharitable to the band at the time. They’d achieved some wider commercial success with their prior album, Some Great Reward, so it was time for reactionary counterbalance. The album locked in as an important part of the Depeche Mode canon, and a mere three years later Spin placed it at #15 on their list “The 25 Greatest Albums of All Time,” just ahead of Al Green’s The Belle Album and trailing George Michael’s Faith.
618. Eddy Grant, Killer on the Rampage (1982)
Eddy Grant was born in the British West Indies and emigrated to the U.K. when he was twelve years old, joining his parents, who’d worked and lived there for several years. Grant’s father was a trumpeter, but it was the experience of seeing Chuck Berry play live that inspired Grant to pursue a career in music. He started with the Equals, a band that scored a U.S. Top 40 hit in the late nineteen-sixties with the single “Baby Come Back.” A solo career followed, with occasional success in the U.K. and nothing more than a cult following in the U.S.
Grant’s fortunes turned with Killer on the Rampage, his seventh solo studio album. It was also Grant’s first album after choosing to return to his Caribbean roots by moving to Barbados. He opened Blue Wave Studios there, and Killer on the Rampage was one of the first products to stem from the new facility. Accordingly, the album is airy, agreeable reggae songs, or at least tracks that have clearly been influenced by island rhythms. Some political anger occasionally bubbles up in Grant’s songwriting (as in the bold, forceful “War Party”), but more often the tracks just bob along. There might be a attention-getting element somewhere in the mix, such as the hornet-buzz synths on “Drop Baby Baby” (which include the lyrics “My heart does the tango/ With every little move you make/ I love you like a mango,/ ‘Cause we can make it everyday”). The norm is closer to “I Don’t Want to Dance,” which comes frightfully close to the lightweight pleasantness of Huey Lewis and the News.
Released as the album’s first single, “I Don’t Want to Dance” was a smash in the U.K., topping the chart for three weeks, in between similar runs by Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and the Jam’s “Beat Surrender.” Grant’s next single was the U.S. breakthrough that had long eluded him. “Electric Avenue” merged its reggae rhythm with a seething funk intensity, creating an utterly unique dance track. The single made it the runner-up spot on the Billboard chart, boxed out of the top position by the sixth and final week of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What a Feeling” at #1.
617. Ultravox, Lament (1984)
The cover art for Lament, the seventh studio album from Ultravox, includes a photograph of the Callanish Stones, a circular arrangement of towering rocks in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. With that in mind, I’d like to cede the initial analysis of the album to Andrew Johnstone, author of the 2010 book How The Neolithics Influenced Rock ‘n’ Roll. Of Lament, Johnstone writes:
The album saw the band move away from the synthesized pop of the New Romantic era, into one that featured a greater use of the guitar, so perhaps the inclusion of Callanish symbolized their return to what had been a more traditional means of music making, just as these sites, symbolize to some, a more naturally balanced time in our existence, of synchronicity with the landscape.
Except for Johnstone’s perplexing deployment of commas, which I’ve preserved in case my editing of the writing mechanics would disrupt some ancient code, the theory works fine for me. Ultravox, fronted by Midge Ure, was clearly consuming and reflecting the sounds of the day, and maybe offering a not-so-gentle reminder that they’d help shape the contours of the dance-driven pop music that was earning other bands greater global success. “White China” is similar to New Order, who were just starting to take major paddle strokes away from the post-punk dock, and “One Small Day” has a little INXS to it. And Ultravox performs it all with a great deal of stylish swagger, maybe best evidenced by the slithering “Heart of the Country” and the moony, puffed-up heartache of “When the Times Comes.”
As a perfect barometer of the cultural weather fronts around them, Lament includes “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes,” an exemplar of soaring, triumphant misery that was then the cooler edge of British pop. The track is exactly the sort of grand, tuneful wallowing that was earning devoted fandom for the Cure, the Smiths, and their eager copycats. Ultravox predated all those bands, of course, and the elders made it clear that they weren’t going to simply cede the floor to the upstarts.
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.