College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #612 to #609

zappa sheik

612. Frank Zappa, Sheik Yerbouti (1979)

Sheik Yerbouti was a new beginning for Frank Zappa. After several frustrating years spent extricating himself from an onerous pact with Warner Bros., Zappa was finally on his own. He’d also been stockpiling material (some of which he surreptitiously released in bootleg form to keep the fans happy while avoiding the ire of Warner Bros. brass), so his recordings for Sheik Yerbouti easily covered four sides, making the first official release on Zappa Records a double album.

Whether by intent or circumstance, Sheik Yerbouti also finds Zappa at his most Zappa-esque, as if a strained fire hydrant had finally been wrenched open. The music romps all over the place, from the jazzy “City of Tiny Lites” to the faux punk of “I’m So Cute” to the muddy guitar workout “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango.” Perhaps more tellingly, Zappa’s raunchy jokester side in in full evidence. “I Have Been in You” takes classic pop and tists it into lewd contortions, and he directly spoofs Bob Dylan on “Flakes,” including Adrian Belew delivering a spot-on impression of the Hibbing bard’s distinctive warble. I know plenty of Zappa’s adherents find this to be scathing and ingenious. To me, most of it strained sophomoric. “Bobby Brown” is dopey satire that plays like subpar, extra naughty filler on a Cheech and Chong record. Disco spoof “Dancin’ Fool” and the self-explanatory “Jewish Princess” are basically in Ray Stevens territory.

There are riveting moments on Sheik Yerbouti, almost exclusively from Zappa wailing away on his guitar with a virtuoso showmanship that few of his contemporaries could approach. The wild ride of “Rat Tomago” and the frenetic “Tryin’ to Grow a Chin” are thrilling in their unleashed musicianship. And the album-ending epic “Yo’ Mama” is best described as a product of a fictional supergroup that could only be called the Grateful Funkadelic. 

The rambunctious creativity Zappa brought to Sheik Yerbouti yielded a level of commercial success unprecedented for him. The album became one of his biggest sellers in the U.S., and the novelty appeal of “Dancin’ Fool” almost landed him in the Top 40 for the first time. Globally, it was by far his biggest-selling record, which Zappa attributed to the surprise success of “Bobby Brown” in Norway, where kids couldn’t stop dancing to it, probably oblivious to the song’s caustic lyrics.

 

moyet alf

611. Alison Moyet, Alf (1984)

Following two albums of inventive dance-pop, Yazoo broke up. The partnership between keyboardist Vince Clarke and singer Alison Moyet had soured to such a degree that their sophomore album, You and Me Both, was recorded essentially apart, with each coming into the studio only when they knew the other wouldn’t be present. Following the dissolution of the band, Clarke went on to other groups, most notably Erasure, and Moyet decided to launch a solo career. Signed to CBS Records, Moyet connected with the Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, a producing team that had recently experienced enormous commercial success with Bananarama and Spandau Ballet. Alf, Moyet’s solo debut, was the result of the new collaboration.

Moyet’s vocals were nicely showcased on the Yazoo records, but there’s a sense on Alf that having her name in big letters on the front cover inspires a more pronounced assertion of her singing prowess. She sings the hell out of “Invisible,” a song written by Motown ace Lamont Dozier that became her sole U.S. Top 40 single, and Moyet manages to make one-syllable words into twisting, bumpy journeys on the lovelorn British soul number “All Cried Out.” And “Love Resurrection” is a feat of powerhouse emoting that rivals peak Annie Lennox. The lushness of the production is both very much of the nineteen-eighties while also forward-thinking enough that it sometimes forecasts some of the elegant pop to come, as is the case with “For You Only,”  an artful gem in the manner of George Michael’s solo work. Sometimes, though, the gloss mostly seems meant to obscure a thinness to the songcraft. No matter how skillfully the studio knobs are spun, “Twisting the Knife” isn’t going to sound like anything better than bland disco.

Alf was a success, especially in the U.K. One of the few people who wasn’t a fan was Moyet, who disliked the the added level of celebrity the album earned her. She developed a cluster of negative associations around the album, some relating to its content and impact and some simply because of other miseries from the time. Moyet eventually developed a grudging appreciation for the Alf, if only because, as she noted, “it supported me in leaner years.”

 

jefferson zero

610. Jefferson Starship, Freedom at Point Zero (1979)

Here’s where things stood with Jefferson Starship, the harder-rocking continuation of Jefferson Airplane, as the nineteen-seventies were nearing the end. Original members Marty Balin and Grace Slick were out of the band, the latter after being asked to resign after a concert debacle that included her drunkenly taunting a German audience, accusing them all of being complicit for the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazis in World War II. The band appeared on the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special, performing the song “Light the Sky on Fire,” a choice in keeping with Paul Kantner’s fascination with bringing science fiction storytelling into his songwriting. New lead singer Mickey Thomas was added to the lineup, as was former Journey drummer Aynsley Dunbar. Work on the fifth Jefferson Starship album for underway with a lot of uncertainty about the continued viability of the band.

Freedom at Point Zero is a glum, dumb slog. The songs are big, bombastic, and empty in their sound (“Jane” is the track that could be played to demonstrate just how dire the rock ‘n’ roll scene had gotten by 1979), and the lyrics are often hideously awful. The title cut, which has the painful parenthetical addition “Climbing Tiger Mountain Through the Sky,”  opens with the lines “People get ready there’s a ship comin’/ Get ready like a lover/ I got a note from the heart of the darkness/ The melody isn’t over” and somehow gets worse from there. “Things to Come” is cheap, hollowed-out arena rock, and “Awakening” is bleating faux darkness, like Aerosmith pretending to be intimidating rock ruffians in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Kantner’s unchecked space folly wandering produces the album’s lowest points, such as “Girl with the Hungry Eyes,” which sounds like watered down ELO, and “Lightning Rose (Carry the Fire).”

No cut testifies to the dearth of worthwhile ideas quite so convincingly as “Rock Music.” It’s as generic as the title implies, the aural equivalent of the a crudely penciled Van Halen logo that’s was photocopied from a photocopy of a photocopy. If Jefferson Starship at this point didn’t have anything more insightful to offer than “Rock and roll is good time music/ Listen to it,” they probably shouldn’t have been making albums at all.

 

parker up

609. Graham Parker, The Up Escalator (1980)

Graham Parker seemed on the verge of breaking through commercially when he recorded The Up Escalator. Parker’s previous full-length release, the prickly, powerful, brilliant Squeezing Out Sparks, logged a respectable peak of #40 on the Billboard album chart and various key tastemakers, from Rolling Stone to Bruce Springsteen, were advocating heartily on the singer-songwriter’s behalf. Jimmy Iovine, a hot producer thanks to recent work with Patti Smith and Tom Petty, was enlisted to oversee the record. Parker went into the studio with his backing band the Rumour, but, tellingly, the front cover billed The Up Escalator as solely a Parker album.

The Up Escalator applied to a damper to Parker’s momentum. The reason is simple: It’s not a very strong album. The songwriting clarity of his previous releases is largely absent, which in turn leeches away the potency. “The Devil’s Sidewalk” is like the product of someone taking stray notes from a songwriting idea journal and using them with no editing or other refinement: “Took a walk down Hell’s pavement/ Took a walk down pulled by the tide/ I had to make some new arrangement/ Oh, I thought I’d reach the other side/ Then someone opened up their mouth to talk/ They said, ‘You ain’t where you think you are/ You just landed on the devil’s sidewalk.'” That’s not poetic abstraction; it’s borderline incoherence. 

Even at its best, The Up Escalator sounds like Parker going through the motions. It’s unmistakably Parker’s established voice on the snarling “Empty Lives” and the bruising, cynical “Jolie Jolie” (“Always in the bitter end/ Lovers just become good friends”), but he’s one turf already left sufficient scarred by his cleated shuffles. The flares of potentially productive creative restlessness (“Maneuvers” suggests Parker might have been listening to the Buzzcocks) are rare and fleeting. Most of The Up Escalator is tepid water from a performer whose demeanor and intellect usually roared like a typhoon.

 

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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