608. Roxy Music, Manifesto (1979)
Officially, Roxy Music was broken up. The band’s 1975 album, Siren, was adored by music critics and, but Roxy Music’s modest standards, a commercial success. “Love is the Drug,” a single taken from Siren, scraped its way into the Billboard Top 40, if just barely. Following the tour in support of the album, the band officially called it quits, releasing a live album and a “best of” collection in the aftermath. Lead singer Bryan Ferry pursued his solo career, and other members of the band picked up new gigs. But the allure of recording again as Roxy Music — presumably because the growing acknowledgement of the band’s influence promised more robust returns than their splintered creative endeavors — and a version of the band reconvened to make Manifesto.
The music scene went through a transformation in the four years between Roxy Music studio albums, and Manifesto finds the band trying to catch up. More accurately, the way the band kept tinkering with the material after the album’s release suggested they were uncertain about how to meet the prevailing trends. Both “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away” are awash in Roxy Music’s trademark luxuriant melancholy on the album. When released as singles, they were given attentive makeovers to add a tinny disco sheen. Neither reworked track is a dramatic acquiescence to the perceived interests of the marketplace, but the shifts are noticeable enough to prompt fair questions about the band’s convictions as they reunited.
During a time when genre divisions were being drawn more sharply, Roxy Music always landed somewhere between lush pop and edgy rock. On Manifesto, they seem less settled than ever, in ways both good and bad. Many of the songs are strong: the title cut is Talking Heads stealth funk melded with Roxy Music’s trademark chill swagger, “Trash” is shiny new wave, and “Spin Me Round” has an appealing dreaminess. The band’s impressive musicianship is evident as they lock into a jazzy groove on “Ain’t That So.” And yet Manifesto is overly disjointed, and even the best cuts have a tendency to drift into indifference. Beyond fiscal considerations, it’s difficult to discern the album’s reason for being. The older records were hoisting the bands legacy just fine on their own.
607. The Silencers, A Letter from St. Paul (1987)
Vocalist Jimme O’Neill and guitarist Cha Burns were seasoned veterans of the U.K. music scene — including time as bandmates in post-punk outfit Fingerprintz — when they decided to form the Silencers, in the mid–nineteen-eighties. At the time, O’Neill openly acknowledged that the Smiths were a major influence, and trying to reach their artistic heights with a fairly straightforward guitars-and-beats approach was the overarching goal. They peddled their demos and landed a comfy deal with RCA Records, releasing their debut album, A Letter from St. Paul, not long afterwards.
“So much music is part of an overall blueprint, everything has been calculated right down to the bass drum sound,” O’Neill said at the time of the album’s release. “All we want to do is avoid doing the wrong thing.”
In a manner familiar to U.K. music of the day, A Letter from St. Paul definitely sounds the product of a band taking careful, measured steps. The lyrics sometimes come from a place of political concern, as is the case with the single “Painted Moon,” about O’Neill’s reaction to Britain jumping into a war with the Falkland Islands. Even then, there’s little sense of an attempt to rouse rabble because the elegant melodic construction is its own calming agent. Though the album’s title inadvertently tricked Christian bookstores into stocking copies, the song of the same name is a tender, chiming number built around a recitation of correspondence from someone studying in the chilly clime of Minnesota.
The Silencers were dogged by comparisons when the album was released, with practically every fellow musical denizen of Scotland or the greater U.K. invoked at one point or another. And citing other bands is indeed irresistible. “I See Red” sounds like the Alarm teaming up with Simple Minds, and “I Can’t Cry” suggests a more graceful version of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. “God’s Gift” has a touch of Hoodoo Gurus’ wry braggadocio, tempered by the earthiness of any number of bands hailing from the heartland of the U.S. And yet none of the material is particularly derivative. The Silencers start in the mirror, but then quickly step up and start adding their own bits of personal flair. The lengthy album closer “Possessed” demonstrates their ability to match craft to ambition as the song pushes into swirling celebration. A Letter from St. Paul ends the way any debut album should, by rousing curiosity about what this band might do next.
606. Peter Gabriel, Plays Live (1983)
There was a certain amount of discontent to Peter Gabriel when he went on tour to support his fourth solo album, which was, as far as he was concerned, self-titled. Part of his consternation stemmed from the name of that album. His U.S. label, Geffen Records, released it as Security without consulting Gabriel, leading to some ill will. Gabriel was also struggling through a rough patch personally, with a crumbling marriage at the center of trouble. The concerts he played became a sort of sanctuary, leaving him feeling rejuvenated. He was recording shows as a matter of course, and he decided to put together a live album. Plays Live was taken from four dates in the U.S. Midwest, with a little studio supplementation that was openly acknowledged in the double album’s liner notes.
Gabriel’s fine form is evident from the beginning of the album, as opening track “The Rhythm of the Heat” slowly, surely builds to monumental proportions. He’s in clear command throughout, leading his band through tight, forceful version of his songs. Plays Live includes a dutiful, prolonged pass at “Shock the Monkey,” which had recently become Gabriel’s first U.S. Top 40 hit (“Games Without Frontiers,” Gabriel’s highest charting single to that point in the U.K., is notably absent), but the album mostly avoids being little more than a “best of” collection with crowd noises. Gabriel instead reels off songs that demonstrate his unique inventiveness. The prog disco song “On the Air” feels oddly at home up against the stately “Biko,” and they somehow convincingly belong on the same album with dark, agitated “I Go Swimming” (which is the only song on the album that hadn’t been previously released by Gabriel in a studio version).
The overall musicianship is strong, but Plays Live arguably is most impressive as a reminder that the most compelling and distinctive component of Gabriel’s material is his evocative singing. Lacking the kind of vocal range that allows from dazzling runs of notes, Gabriel emphasizes an actorly expressiveness. A track such as “Family Snapshot” practically becomes a feature film transposed to song. And Gabriel’s ability to lean into the emotional meaning of a song with his intonations means the definitive version of “Solsbury Hill” resides on Plays Live.
At least in retrospect, Gabriel saw Plays Live as the end of the first phase of his solo career, an instinct that played out at the time with self-cannibalization of his own catalog to help him craft music for the Alan Parker film Birdy. There was also the matter of his next proper studio album. Gabriel tweaked his sound, outlook, and image in intriguing ways. The result was simply the biggest commercial success of his career.
605. Graham Parker, Another Grey Area (1982)
For Another Grey Area, his sixth studio album, Graham Parker officially jettisoned his longtime backing band, the Rumour. The apparent attempt to court a more commercial sound that helped sink his previous album, The Up Escalator, wasn’t cast aside, but Parker seemed more comfortable asserting himself within that tricky framework. Working with seasoned studio musicians and co-producer Jack Douglas, who was Aerosmith’s go-to knob-spinner, Parker delivered a polished, assured version of his best self, albeit with some of the signature cynicism tamped down.
Parker already had two albums in record shop bins before Elvis Costello debuted with My Aim is True, but it was Costello who cast the shadow and Parker who grumpily sat in it. At times, Another Grey Area seems like Parker decided to just give up and court the comparison. “Can’t Waste a Minute” has echoes of “Oliver’s Army,” and “Temporary Beauty” would fit right in on one of the album’s where Costello overtly apes bygone pop styles, fancying himself a misplaced crooner. Parker never quite gets lost, though. The easy beat of “No More Excuses” places it adjacent to reggae and yet entirely detached from the form. Only Parker has ever quite managed that specific trick.
As is the case with the most exciting songwriters, Parker seems to be constantly investigating himself anew and ruthlessly reporting the findings. With a smooth rawness that, again, only he could quite muster, Parker delivers a harsh appraisal on “It’s All Worth Nothing Alone”: “Sometimes I act just like world owes me a favor/ Sometimes bitterness has been my only flavor/ But it’s all worth nothing alone.” Parker may have been exploring grey areas, but he was uniquely skilled at finding the darkness.
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.