College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #600 to #597

elvis taking

600. Elvis Costello, Taking Liberties (1980)

There were a lot of trips to the record store for anyone who committed to being an Elvis Costello completist in the early years of his career. Following the release of his debut album with backing band the Attractions, My Aim is True, Costello put out new music at a steady clip. From 1977 on, Costello released at least one new full-length album every year until every page of the 1985 calendar was flipped without an addition to his stacked discography. And all that product still didn’t account for everything. In late 1980, Costello had enough spare bits floating around to put out the collection Taking Liberties.

Put together for the North American market (the U.K. and Europe got a similar package titled Ten Bloody Marys & Ten How’s Your Fathers), Taking Liberties includes several B-sides, cuts that were left off of U.S. version of his albums, some soundtrack filler, and a couple songs that hadn’t yet been pressed onto record. It’s almost inevitable that such a roundup of material is going to have a slapdash feel, but this is also an era when Costello was at the peak of his formidable powers, in both songwriting and performance. The jabbing punk song “Clean Money,” expertly tuneful “Tiny Steps,” and bounding “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” are castoffs that are stronger than most artists’ best swings.

There’s also evidence of a little extra care in the sequencing, giving Taking Liberties a better sense of purpose. Placing the anti-Tory “Sunday’s Best” back-to-back with “Crawling to the U.S.A.,” a song decrying U.S. foreign policy, is surely no accident. The album also provides a strong sense of Costello’s range, with room for country-tinged numbers “Radio Sweetheart” and “Stranger in the House,” as well a stomping R&B, with Costello doing right by Betty Everett on a cover of “Getting Mighty Crowded.” One of the only places where Costello falters is on a reclamation of one of his own songs, as his run through “Girls Talk” is slack compared to the definitive Dave Edmunds version.

Many artists raid their vaults as means of stalling while in creative dry spell. That wasn’t the case for the relentlessly prolific Costello. Around two months after Taking Liberties, Costello released Trust, his first of two new studio albums in 1981.


stewart tonight

599. Rod Stewart, Tonight I’m Yours (1981)

“Tonight I’m Yours (Don’t Hurt Me),” the opening track to the similarly titled album, is representative of Rod Stewart’s artistic sensibility at that point in his career. It’s clearly an attempt at a new wave song, but delivered with a level of indifference that makes it seem as though it was crafted by people who’d never actually heard an example of the pop trend of the moment. They read about new wave in a magazine, figured they had the gist of it, knocked out a track quickly, and headed off to the pub to watch some football.

The respect Stewart duly earned in the early portion of his career was severely eroded away during the latter half of the nineteen-seventies, when he gladly acquiesced to the trend of disco music, most notably on “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” one of the worst chart-toppers of all time. By the early-eighties, Stewart was merely coasting along. Tonight I’m Yours has several lackluster originals, such as the big hollowed out rock song “Only a Boy” and the hit single “Young Turks,” which sounds like the result of Bob Seger writing a song for Dire Straits. The true depths of the album, though, are found on the cover songs. Stewart’s thoroughly bored take on Ace’s “How Long” is bad enough; his grotesque mangling of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” is criminal.

Tonight I’m Yours was a hit for Stewart, but there were also sign’s of a commercial softening that would persist and then grow through the decade that followed. Perpetual reinvention grew trickier for him to pull off, at least until he finally accepted he’d — and his audience — had aged to the point where blandly crooning the standards was his best option.


flesh live

598. Flesh for Lulu, Long Live the New Flesh (1987)

Flesh for Lulu spent their first few years as a band pinging from one frustration to another. They had their successes at home in the U.K., but they were quickly countered by setbacks, including label fickleness that hindered their ability to steadily release music. Then things turned decisively in their favor thanks to the savior of many an alternative rock band in the eighties. Flesh for Lulu landed a song in a John Hughes–produced movie.

“I Go Crazy” was included on the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack. Its electrified rhythm and buzzing guitars were the bed for chewy nonsense lyrics (“All the stars flew away a long time ago/ Isn’t that nice?/ Like Miami Vice“), making it a perfect track for budding goth fans who didn’t want their music to be too dark. One year later, Flesh for Lulu got a big promotional push to go with their new album, Long Live the New Flesh. “I Go Crazy,” naturally, was plopped onto the U.S. version of the album, serving as the opening track. The second track, “Postcards from Paradise,” is even better. It’s a near-perfect piece of power pop, with a vividly catchy hook and a gleaming romanticism.

The rest of Long Live the New Flesh is a significant step down in quality, with tracks locked into mediocre, thudding grooves. The numbing repetition found on “Siamese Twist” is a characteristic example. And it doesn’t get much better when the band varies their approach, as on the glammy ballad “Way to Go.” By the time they’re puffing themselves up to almost sound like U2 taking a crack at glam rock, on “Sleeping Dogs,” it’s clear the album is a lost cause. As subsequent album would further verify, Flesh for Lulu was a fine singles band.


dead lizard

597. The Dead Milkmen, Big Lizard in My Backyard (1985)

A homegrown fan base in a band’s main city of operation doesn’t necessarily promise broader success. Even so, “Bitchin Camaro” was obviously a college radio hit waiting to happen. As The Dead Milkmen’s drummer Dean “Clean” Sabatino later recounted, the song was a fan favorite from the beginning, boosted by local radio to become a live show sing-along (or shout-along, probably) well before it showed up as the centerpiece of Big Lizard in My Backyard, the band’s proper debut album after a few self-released cassettes. As college radio was findings its voice, “Bitchin Camaro” tapped into the insolence, recklessness, and dismissive sense of humor that would be some of the key characteristics of programming on the left end of the dial.

If nothing else on Big Lizard in My Backyard is as grabbing and instantly memorable as the Dead Milkmen’s signature song, the rest of the material is properly aligned in sensibility and execution. Caustically comic, pogoing punk songs are strewn across the album, blasting in with bratty, chanted lyrics and stopping with a cheery clatter before the jokes wear thin. Some of the material definitely hasn’t aged well (I will obliquely refer to, but not explicitly name, a certain song about visiting the zoo), but it’s remarkable how much of the snarling protest found on the record remains relevant. “Violent School” is about the ugly presence of guns in learning institutions, and “Right Wing Pigeons,” which posits that the general positions of the GOP and their ilk are part of a plot by space aliens to destroy the human race, has changed from loopy satire to as plausible as any other explanation for the ever more bonkers behavior from one end of the U.S. political spectrum.

The album is peppered with little, hard gems, such as the anti-beach “Beach Song,” the warped hoedown “Rastabilly,” and “Nutrition,” which shows that punk nihilism needn’t extend to unhealthy diet choices. The Dead Milkmen fire out their music like buckshot blasts. That meant a lot of songs went astray, but plenty hit meaty targets, too.


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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