College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #564 to #561


564. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, O.M.D. (1981)

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were very busy in 1980. Starting as a duo comprised of bassist Andy McCluskey and keyboard player Paul Humphreys, the band released their first two full-length studio albums at home in the U.K., quickly pushing singles in the country’s Top 10. They were picked up by Epic Records for U.S. distribution, but the label decided neither of the first two albums — a self-titled effort and Organisation — was quite right for their North American bow, and so tracks from those releases were shuffled together like playing cards, resulting in a compilation that used its titled to cement acronym for the band’s name that was going to be especially useful for a populace destined to misspell Manoeuvres.

O.M.D. is gifted with the dual benefits of a young band bursting with creative and just enough chart-tested hindsight to help optimize the playlist. A band can’t ask for a better first impression than the energetic, soaring “Enola Gay,” which greeted U.S. listeners who dropped the needle at the start of the collection’s first side. O.M.D. emerged as part of the post-punk scene (opening for Joy Division was an early gig), and the merged the sounds of that subgenre with element of all the other edgy experimentalism happening at the time. “Bunker Soldiers” has a distinct German art rock influence, and “The Misunderstanding” is in the melancholy goth mode of the Cure, without quite that band’s level of running-mascara conviction.

Getting out of the gate a pace or two ahead of Depeche Mode, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark established some of the two groups’ common techniques of combining icy electronic music with lyrics that are simultaneously glum, simple, and cryptic, allowing forlorn teens around the globe to project their heartache onto them. The slithery synth romanticism of “Almost” (“Always making statements/ And moving step by step/ Always acting theories/ I will regret”) and the blipping and luxuriant “Messages” (“I’d write and tell you that I’ve burnt them all/ But you never send me your address/ And I’ve, I’ve kept them anyway”) are fine examples. There are signs that Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark could have pushed into more intriguing complexity — “Statues” is like a horror movie score reshaped into a song of troubled romance — but it’s clear from the collection that they were especially comfy in their chosen zone.



563. The Feelies, The Good Earth (1986)

To the degree anyone was thinking about the Feelies in the mid–nineteen-eighties, the default assumption was surely that the band was no longer. After a famed, beloved debut, Crazy Rhythms — that quickly went out of print and became of the Holy Grails of the college rock era — six long years passed with barely a peep from the band. The occasional live show played within comfortable driving distance of their Haledon, New Jersey home base was about it. Then the Feelies’ sophomore album, The Good Earth, finally arrived. Record label woes and the general intransigence of the music industry might have contributed to the uncommonly long time between records, but guitarist Bill Million provided a simpler official explanation.

”A lot of bands that put out second albums shouldn’t — it’s too soon,” Million told The New York Times when The Good Earth was released. “We wanted to make sure the timing was right.”

Co-produced by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck (presumably at around the same time he was working with his bandmates on Lifes Rich Pageant), The Good Earth opens with “On the Roof,” which appropriately sounds like the band slowly coming awake, finding their trademark crazy rhythm. That’s one of the niftiest tricks in the arsenal of Million and his co-songwriter and co-arranger, Glenn Mercer. The slow build is found elsewhere on the album, notably the utterly charming “Slipping (Into Something).” Just as often, the Feelies bring a disarming jittery genius to a song right from the opening bars, as on the racing “The Last Roundup.”

There’s also an expanded scope on The Good Earth, a clear and successful attempt to expand their sonic palette. Perhaps influenced by Buck, “Two Rooms” has a easygoing melody and drifty background vocal that gives it a feel of jauntier R.E.M., and “Tomorrow Today” puts militaristic march in conflict with a bendy, buzzy guitar line with sterling results. And the title cut‘s evocative mood of aching beauty distinguishes it as the song Yo La Tengo has arguably spent their entire career striving to make.

The Feelies’ songs have an artfully constructed precision, and yet they reverberate with a feeling of exuberant spontaneity. It’s probably an open question as to whether The Good Earth really required more than a half-decade to come to proper fruition, but the value in waiting identified by Million dose seem partially proven by the album. With The Good Earth, the band’s timing was impeccable.


roxy avalon

562. Roxy Music, Avalon (1982)

The figure clad in chainmail on the cover of Avalon, the eighth album from Roxy Music, is not some random evoker of myth and legend, in the visual style of many U.K.–based acts of the late–nineteen-seventies and early–nineteen-eighties. Bryan Ferry claims he was specific thinking of King Arthur when he penned the songs for the band he fronted, envisioning Avalon to be a more cohesive work, a pensive novel in ten tracks. It might be difficult to discern Camelot in the swooning title cut‘s lyrics (“When you bossanova/ There’s no holding/ Would you have me dancing/ Out of nowhere”), but Roxy Music had clearly reached a point where mood was the chief characteristic of their output.

Officially, the band was down to a trio: Ferry at the front and on keyboards, Phil Manzanera playing guitar, and Andy Mackay on saxophone. The other parts were handled by a fleet of shifting studio musicians. The music is lush, refined, and sedate, as if the band, over a decade past their debut and perhaps feeling their age at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was still considered a game for the young, was attempting to invent their own version of adult contemporary music, with the edge of a stiff martini rather than the cloying, syrupy sentimentality that eventually prevailed. Whatever issues Avalon might have, the world would be a better place if “More Than This” had been the song from a veteran artist that the surging radio format glommed onto while still in the process of self-definition instead of the likes of “Ebony and Ivory” and “Hard to Say I’m Sorry.”

Considering how stealthily dangerous Roxy Music often sounded on their best albums from the nineteen-seventies, Avalon is a notably tepid affair. “The Main Thing” has a tingle of steely pop that anticipates Robert Palmer’s commercial breakthrough to come, and “To Turn You On” is light, lithe funk as only Ferry could do. But those cuts barely burble up for notice, as most of the album gels into smooth, soothing background music, entirely disinterested in attracting attention as it sleepily smokes a cigarette in the back of the room. Listening now, it makes sense that Avalon is the last Roxy Music album, despite the face that it was also their most successful, the only release credited to the band that crossed into million-seller territory. In truth, it sounds like they gave up about halfway through making it.


van halen 1984

561. Van Halen, 1984 (1984)

To be completely accurate, the cover of Van Halen’s sixth studio album gives the title as MCMLXXXIV. Released just over a week into the year in question, 1984 was an era-defining album in a stretch that had so shortage of such musical efforts. When the Van Halen album hit record store shelves, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, already over a year old, was in the midst of a seventeen-week run atop the Billboard chart, and before the calendar was complete, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and and Prince’s Purple Rain made their debuts. There was such an abundance of smash hit albums that 1984 never managed to muscle its way to the top position on the Billboard album chart, even as it sold over five million copies in its first year of release.

Going into 1984, Van Halen were coming off their least satisfying recording experience as a band. Their previous album, Diver Down, was put together in haste, the direct result of record company pressure after a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” intended as a one-off single, became a surprise hit, leading Warner Bros. executives to insist an accompanying album was needed. Heavily reliant on other cover songs and boasting a meager half hour running time, Diver Down wasn’t representative of the level of craft guitarist Eddie Van Halen hoped for from the outfit that carried his name. The compromised product steeled his conviction to get the next album right, an instinct that also manifested in a desire to expand the breadth of his musical acumen. And so one of the most revered hot rock guitarists of his generation decided he was going to insist on a greater presence of synthesizers.

As if signaling to fans that they were in for a slightly different Van Halen album, 1984 opens with a brief title cut of quasi–prog rock synth lines and weird electrified burbles, before shifting quickly into “Jump,” which also served as the record’s first single. Van Halen’s love of a killer opening riff was transposed from the strings and fingerboard of a guitar to the plastic keys of an Oberheim OB-X. Van Halen pitched that particular synth riff to his bandmates for a few years, but it was rejected out of hand until producer Ted Templeman. Put together with the sort of inane lyrics that only singer David Lee Roth could sell (“But, can’t you see me standing here?/ I’ve got my back against the record machine/ I ain’t the worst that you’ve seen/ Ah, don’t you know what I mean?”), “Jump” became a massive hit, topping the Billboard singles chart for five weeks.

Both the grinding “Panama” and “I’ll Wait” also made the Billboard top 40, the latter song written with Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers, and saddled with the plodding geniality he favored. “Hot for Teacher,” sophomoric but admittedly amusing (“I brought my pencil/ Gimme something to write on, man”), actually missed the Top 40, but felt like one of the album’s biggest hits because of its near constant presence on MTV. Much as 1984 was a significant step forward for Van Halen, there are remnants of the old creative spirit, for good and ill. “House of Pain” is enjoyable enough in its gooey metal menace, but “Drop Dead Legs” sullies some lean, tough Van Halen guitar heroics with the complete embarrassment of Roth’s leering lyrics (“Dig that steam, giant butt/ Makes me scream, I get nuh-nuh-nothing but the shakes over you”). It was as if not everyone agreed it was time for the band to grow up.

In the aftermath of 1984, there was no shortage of disagreement. Almost exactly one year after the album’s release date, David Lee Roth delivered his solo debut, a thin EP consistently entirely of covers, two of which — “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” — made the Billboard Top 40. He also had dreams of movie stardom and was actively developing a starring vehicle that he prioritized over the band. Whether Roth quit or was fired, he was out of the band by the middle of 1985. After an unsuccessful attempt to convince Patty Smyth to take the lead singer role, Van Halen announced Roth’s replacement as Sammy Hagar, leading to a long era of the band that, despite some fan misgivings, had its fair share of commercial success.


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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