College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #580 to #577

untouchables wild

580. The Untouchables, Wild Child (1985)

Well before the advent of Kickstarter campaigns, the Los Angeles band the Untouchables figured out a way to draw an advance from the enthusiasm from their fans. When the group was playing shows to ever more enthusiastic crowds but still couldn’t generate any interest from record labels, they mounted a fundraising campaign which netted around fifteen thousand dollars. That small windfall was put toward the recording of their debut EP, Live and Let Dance, and the band’s delirious hybrid of ska, soul, and pop eventually found its way to David Robinson, the former Island Records president who had just taken over Stiff Records. The Untouchables became one of the few acts signed to the U.K. cult hero label, and their debut full-length, Wild Child, arrived shortly thereafter.

Opening with a title song that carries the classic vibe of old Stax sizzlers, Wild Child is a vibrant piece of work. The Untouchables definitely flash some of the reggae and ska influence that probably contributed significantly to the interest of U.K. music fans, then at the tail end of the two-tone phase. “Mandingo” is textbook ska, and “What’s Gone Wrong” lilts along with a reggae ballad cool. “(I Spy for the) FBI” demonstrates the way the band could lean into the particulars of the style while simultaneously expanding their possibilities. And an elements such as the bluesy guitar swirling around on “Piece of Your Love” further makes the assertion that they had little interest in being pigeonholed.

The impressive flashes of range on Wild Child are occasionally countered by a running-before-mastering-walking stumble, as with “Lovers Again,” which crams the band into a dance music framework, not entirely comfortably. Mostly, the album is energizing, casually indulging in the sort of blithe rule-breaking that typified the adventure and rebellion of college radio.



579. Cocteau Twins, The Pink Opaque (1985)

For their first few releases, the Scottish band Cocteau Twins lacked distribution in the U.S. So as their distinctive swirling dream pop earned a modest yet impressive following in the U.K., with strong record sales and singles the routinely topped the indie chart, North American listeners who wanted their music to swoon and ache were left digging through import bins and steeling themselves for the heftier price tags stuck onto the 4AD releases. They finally snagged a deal with Relativity Records, mandating a proper introduction to the U.S. audience.

Clustering together several tracks from the preceding years, The Pink Opaque is a fine primer on Cocteau Twins. The beautifully drifty “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” and the delicate dance of “Aikea-guinea” sound ethereal and grounded all at once. They’re light and precise without becoming overly precious. “Lorelei” is ravishingly complex, snarling together elegant restraint and a full-hearted eddy of lush sounds in a way that sounds like a complete reinvention of what music can do. The strictures of the modern pop song are tossed asunder, and yet the track is catchy and stirring, somehow feeling familiar in its oddity. It’s like there’s sorcery at play.

As was the case with other compilations of this ilk, a bit of otherwise unavailable material is also sprinkled in. The album’s sole entirely new track, “Millimillenary,” maintains the trademark sound, rendering in a tough, knotty manner. And “Wax and Wane” is given the polish of a remix, though the spruce up doesn’t carry it that far away from the original.

As a platform for Cocteau Twins’ introduction to the U.S., The Pink Opaque couldn’t have been better assembled. And, in a bit of fortuitous timing, the band’s strongest overall albums were just ahead. Music fans who discovered them with the compilation would soon be rewarded nicely.


big atomizer

578. Big Black, Atomizer (1986)

Reviewing Atomizer for Spin magazine, Byron Coley highlighted an unexpected accomplishment for an album steeped in a punk rock ethos: “You’ll notice no drummer listed, and I herewith beg to inform you that Big Black is the only band in the known world that has ever made a Roland drum machine sound good.”

The relatively new invention the drum machine was mostly used by groups making dance music, taking advantage of the device’s ultra-precise rhythms to create tracks meant to keep the dance floor full. Steve Albini and his collaborators in Big Black figured out the relentlessness of the technology was also a fine match for punk rock. The thrillingly assaultive “Jordan, Minnesota” establishes the brilliance of the idea, with the drum machine sounding like a t-shirt cannon refashioned into a Tommy gun. Introducing an element that skews away from the sweat-and-blood authenticity demanded by punk fans courts cries of heresy, but Big Black quickly make a compelling case for their deviation.

There are sparks of invention present all across Atomizer, whether on the formidably horrific “Fists of Love” or powerhouse “Stinking Drunk,” which often sounds like metal contorting. “Kerosene” is an intimidating snarl, answering the small town romanticization making millions for John Mellencamp with a counterargument of misery (“I was born in this town/ Live here my whole life/ Probably come to die in this town/ Live here my whole life”) eventually capped by fantasies of blazing destruction (“There’s Kerosene around, find something to do/ Kerosene around, find something to do/ Kerosene around, she’s something to do/ Kerosene around, set me on fire”). The album closes with the splendid noise of live track “Cables,” as if Big Black wants to make it clear that their use of supplementary technology doesn’t limit them to studio performances. They can rattle a club as well as any of their peers.

Atomizer was the full-length debut of Big Black. Befitting a band built on defiance, there wasn’t much to follow. The following year brought their sophomore full-length, Songs About Fucking. That provocatively titled album was also the band’s last.



577. Greg Kihn Band, Kihntinued (1982)

Greg Kihn tried a few different musical explorations on Kihntinued, the fourth album billed to the Greg Kihn Band and his seventh full-length studio effort overall. He brought a mild Caribbean feel to “Tell me Lies” and “Sound System.” He kicked up the volume on “Seeing is Believing,” leading to some of the least convincing hard rock posturing ever pressed onto record. But a Greg Kihn record is a Greg Kihn record is a Greg Kihn record. In most respects, Kihntinued is interchangeable with the other albums that bear Kihn’s name, demonstrating a sturdy sense of pop-rock craft and a redundancy of ideas that suggests a bunch of folks who are eager to ring the quitting bell early every day.

When Kihn and his cohorts landed on a slick hook or a nifty turn of phrase, they could cook up a song that broke down the defenses of the most committed music elitist. The rest of the time, the material settled into a region of nearly unbearable blandness. Kihntinued sits squarely in the rest of the time. Putting a squirrelly saxophone part into “Every Love Song” isn’t the same as adding personality to a song. And if “Everyday/Saturday” is exactly as inane as modern pop songs about club life, that doesn’t make it prescient. Kihntinued is early-eighties pop-rock at its most generic.


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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