616. Prefab Sprout, Two Wheels Good (1985)
Prefab Sprout found out they had a famous fan. During a discussion aired on BBC Radio, Thomas Dolby praised some of the material on Prefab Sprout’s 1983 debut album, Swoon. Connections were made, and Dolby met with Paddy McAloon, the band’s creative center. McAloon shared dozens of songs with Dolby, who then picked out a batch that he liked. McAloon was dispatched to polish the songs further. That material became the basis for the band’s sophomore release, which was recorded with Dolby in the producer’s chair.
Released in the U.K. as Steve McQueen, the album was retitled Two Wheels Good for the North American market after the estate of the name-checked actor expressed their potentially litigious discontent. It was probably general protectiveness of the future marketing strength of the recently deceased actor’s name that inspired but the protest, but I suppose there could’ve been some concerns that the music on Prefab Sprout’s record was so far removed from McQueen’s tough guy image. Living in the swoony place between new wave and the Madchester melanges to come in the late–nineteen-eighties and early–nineteen-nineties, the tracks on Two Wheels Good are pristine baubles of gleaming pop goodness.
“When Love Breaks Down” is arguably the finest example of what Prefab Sprout coule pull off. The cut is lush and lean at the same time, covering familiar ground for a pop song but making it all sound shiny and new, even slyly innovative. The icy percolation opening of “Goodbye Lucille #1” mellows into a smooth groove, and “Faron” comes across as an alternative universe version of Squeeze that was reared on Western swing. When the band shifts into ballad mode, it can get a little gooey (“Appetite” is a prime offender), but there’s often a cheeky humor throughout that has a Kinks-like effect of adding friction to the smooth. “Moving the River” is a jaunty song about prickly domestic problems (“You’ve got a new wife/ How’s the wife taking it”), and the dreamy romanticism of “Desire As” is countered by wry, cynical lyrics (“I’ve got six things on my mind/ You’re no longer one of them”).
The album was a reasonable performer for Prefab Sprout in the U.K. On the other side of the Atlantic, it caused the most modest of ruffles, but it did generate just enough interest to become the band’s only album to make an appearance of the Billboard album chart, peaking at #178.
615. Bill Nelson, Vistamix (1984)
Former Be-Bop Deluxe bandleader Bill Nelson was solidly into his solo career in the mid–nineteen-eighties, but he was having difficulty operating within the complications of the music industry. Iconoclastic and wildly prolific, Nelson continually ran into difficulty working with record labels, leading to spotty distribution of his output, especially in the U.S. After he failed to secure North American distribution for the 1983 mini-album Chimera, Nelson decided to squeeze those lemons. He repackaged the tracks from Chimera along with a few of his stronger singles and dubbed the resulting collection Vistamix.
It turns out the compilation format serves Nelson well, if only because any release that puts the fabulously catchy 1980 single “Do You Dream in Colour?” and the vibrant and fulsome 1982 mini-hit “Flaming Desire” in the same place is performing a great service to the culture. In general, Vistamax shows off Nelson’s formidable skills as a musician and a songwriter, whether delivering quintessential new wave on “The Real Adventure” or uncorking dance music that swings with “Empire of the Senses.” To the degree that the album is a resume presented to U.S. listeners, asking for their attention, it’s a compelling work.
Vistamix didn’t become a breakthrough, though. Nelson continued to toil in relative obscurity, but he definitely didn’t slow down. By rough count, Nelson’s output as a solo artist numbers well over one hundred full-length albums.
614. A Flock of Seagulls, Listen (1983)
A Flock of Seagulls was quickly relegated to the status of one hit wonder. Although it’s undoubtedly true the band enjoyed only a brief period of significant mainstream success, they weren’t quite a sparkler that flared then fizzled in record time. Beginning with the MTV-propelled hit “I Ran (So Far Away),” A Flock of Seagulls pushed three straight singles into the Billboard Top 40, including the lovely, lovelorn “Wishing (If I Had a Photograph of You).” The latter song was the lead single from Listen, the band’s sophomore effort and attempt to prove they were an act with enough creative wherewithal to last.
The completely unclouded vision afforded by hindsight provides a view of A Flock of Seagulls dwindling quickly into insignificance until enough time passed for them to evolve into a nostalgia act. Listen surprisingly suggests their career might have progressed differently with a few fortuitous twists. “The Traveller” has a drive that positions it not far from early U2, when the Irish lads still sounded like a new wave band, and “Transfer Affection” is the kid of debonair pop that earned bands such as Prefab Sprout and Aztec Camera plaudits throughout the eighties. And “What Am I Supposed to Do” has a modern crispness, offering the reminder that more recent eighties-aping bands Cut Copy and White Lies build with blueprints A Flock of Seagulls helped draw up.
The shortcomings of A Flock of Seagulls are also present on Listen. When the band tries to stretch — as on the stately “The Fall” — the strain shows. The lack of range foretells the tumble to come, but most of Listen is sharp and engaging. The album unfurls a briefly convincing disguise of likely longevity over the band.
613. Journey, Escape (1981)
The last time a Journey album appeared on the Countdown, I felt obligated to concede the band knew how to open an album. And here we are again. Anyone who somehow got their hands on an advance copy of Escape, Journey’s seventh studio album, and dropped the needle at the beginning of side one, would have heard a keyboard introduction played by Jonathan Cain, a new addition to the band charged with replacing founding member Gregg Rolie. The melody flows back and forth for a bit before Steve Perry slides in, singing, “Just a small town girl/ Livin’ in a lonely world/ She took the midnight train going anywhere.” The song builds and builds, peppering in evocative details (“A smell of wine and cheap perfume”) and consistently heightening the drama until it feels like every bit of the cheap romanticism of rock ‘n’ roll is being channeled into this single cut. Putting aside all of the cultural baggage the song has accumulated over the years, I need to sheepishly submit a revised repeat of my earlier praise: “Don’t Stop Believin” is a pretty damn impressive beginning to an album.
Escape is by far the most commercially successful studio album from Journey. In the band’s catalog, only a greatest hits collection has sold more copies. Escape is band’s only album to reach the top position on the Billboard chart, and it yielded three Top 10 singles, outpacing other release. Among its hits are the album rock radio mainstay “Who’s Crying Now” and definitive power ballad “Open Arms,” which was blocked out of the top of the Billboard singles chart by the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold,” as formidable of a smash as there was in the early-eighties.
The primacy of Escape makes sense and indeed has a touch of pop culture cosmic justice it. It might be the Journiest of Journey albums, from the previously mentioned hits to the blaring nostalgia of “Stone in Love” and the completely unconvincing hard rock posturing of “Dead or Alive.” Even the weird sci-fi cover art comes across as Journey bringing their mildly confused aesthetic to its absolute pinnacle. Good or bad, Escape is Journey, and Journey is Escape.
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.