College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #552 to #549

lone eyesore

552. Various Artists, Lonely is an Eyesore (1987)

The 4AD record label launched in 1980, and quickly developed a reputation for haunting, esoteric pop music, the ethereal quality of the various acts’ creative enhanced by the striking cover art provided by house designer Vaughan Oliver. Like other small, scrappy labels in the U.K. — such as Stiff Records and 2 Tone Records — 4AD’s distinct identity served it well in the homeland shops without fully transferring to other markets. Availability of the product was certainly as issue in the U.S., but its questionable as to whether or not the 4AD name carried weight. After the signing of their first U.S. act, Throwing Muses, the folks at 4AD decided the time was right for a proper introduction to the unconverted, so they issued the artist sampler Lonely is an Eyesore. It’s likely more than happenstance that the compilation takes it name from a lyric on “Fish,” the tingly and charging contribution by their freshly contracted Americans.

The album’s lead track is Colourbox’s “Hot Doggie,” which appropriately opens with the cry “Let’s hear some music!” before giving way to thumping beats and hacksaw guitar parts. At this point, U.S. audiences likely most closely associated 4AD with the dreamy soundscapes of Cocteau Twin, and the jagged dance music of Colourbox quickly, efficiently upends expectations. The album also includes the fab goth drama of the Wolfgang Press’s “Cut the Tree” and Dif Juz’s “No Motion”, which is lush and swirling with an underlying solidity, basically anticipating the turn taken by the Cure a couple years later on Disintegration. Dead Can Dance is the sole act to be represented by multiple cuts, with both a demo version of “Frontier” and the luxuirant epic “The Protagonist” in place.

The album makes a strong case for 4AD as a label with a unifying creative outlook and yet a reasonably impressive range among the acts. At a time when college radio was completely coming into its own, Lonely is an Eyesore was a fine and proper audition to be the semi-official label of the kids holding down the left end of the dial.


talk life

551. Talk Talk, It’s My Life (1984)

It’s My Life, the sophomore album from Talk Talk, was received tepidly in their U.K. homeland, but it helped the band break elsewhere in the world. The tender disco cut “Such a Shame,” punctuated with a oddly thrilling succession of false endings, earned them Top 10 status on several country-centered charts across Europe, and the exquisite title cut was their lone Top 40 hit in the U.S., where it also become once those enduring songs called upon to reductively represent the whole of nineteen-eighties pop.

The remainder of It’s My Life does make a compelling case for Talk Talk as one of the quintessential bands of the moment, when synth-pop was sprinting as fast as it could from the trappings of the needlessly disgraced disco movement while surreptitiously invoking its secret spells from time to time. The lithe synth yearning of  “Renée,” the layered, coiled intensity of “It’s You,” and the slow, deliberate groove “Tomorrow Started” show off the band’s icy cool ingenuity and ability to be playful within the boundaries they’d set themselves. “Does Caroline Know?,” which moves like sonic mercury, is maybe the most striking showcase of their talents. like mercuryA couple decades later, Beck would make the same sort of records, but with an unseemly look-at-me eagerness of fading vaudevillian. The Talk Talk version is better.

Whatever success Talk Talk achieved with It’s My Life, their inability to crack the code of U.K. commercial success stung. And, by all accounts, that disgruntlement helped fuel their next album, which basically preserved their established sound while also swooping off in new directions.


talking name

550. Talking Heads, The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (1982)

The first live album from Talking Heads opens with lead singer David Byrne making an introduction. “The name of this song is ‘New Feeling,’” he says. “That’s what it’s about.” The charming, feigned awkwardness and literalness extends to the name of the album: The Name of This Band is Talking Heads. The title is a direct allusion to Byrne’s stilted stage patter, but it also makes a suitable thesis statement for the double album, with the wrinkle that the album is actually capturing distinctly different versions of the band.

The first side is drawn from a live in-studio performance given by the band for Boston-area radio station WCOZ. A quick two months after the release of Talking Heads: 77, the band’s debut album, the quartet delivers crisp, pinpoint perfect versions of songs such as “Don’t Worry About the Government.” There’s an endearing reticence to these tracks, as if the band is being careful in the hopes of passing an audition. The second side finds them onstage at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1979. Now three albums deep into their career and clearly feeding off the welling energy of the crowd, the songs are rawer and the performances looser. Byrne employs about a jillion vocal tricks on “Artists Only,” and bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz prove their work as the rhythm section is the greatest strength of the band on “Stay Hungry.”

The second of two albums is where things expand all the way to the Talking Heads touring outfit that director Jonathan Demme would soon capture on film. Drawn from multiple concerts in 1980 and 1981, sides three and four feature Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz, and guitarist Jerry Harrison now augmented by a crew of ringers, ludicrously skilled musicians such as Nona Hendryx, Adrian Belew, and Bernie Worrell joining in on the Talking Heads’ lean art rock songs and inflating them into blissfully funked out epics. “I Zimbra” is a proper beginning for the second album, as the band sounds so much bigger, in every conceivable way. And “Houses in Motion,” showcasing Belew’s twisty guitar lines, is itself an argument for expanding the roster.

Expansion can also mean bloat, though. By the last side, the album grows numbing. “The Great Curve” and “Crosseyed and Painless” are undoubtedly impressive workouts, but they also have a touch of that you-had-to-be-there quality endemic to live recordings. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads is a thoughtful document of a great band’s evolution as performers. But as an album, it’s primarily effective as an advertisement for the next tour.


bears st

549. The Bears, The Bears (1987)

“We just thought it’d be nice to hear songs like these on the radio, just like when ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was being broadcast and thousands of housewives were listening to this bizarre piece of music,” Adrian Belew explained around the time the self-titled debut album from the Bears was released. “I’d like to see that happen again. And that’s what The Bears are all about. We’re committed to something a little more adventurous than the mainstream.”

Freed from his role as glorified sideman to Robert Fripp when King Crimson went on hiatus, Belew started casting around for his next musical opportunity, quickly connecting with guitarist Rob Fetters, drummer Chris Arduser, and bassist Bob Nyswonger, all of whom played together in the Raisins, a Cincinnati band that had several near misses in their quest to go national. After adopting the name the Bears, the band headed to Belew’s home recording studio, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and worked up a batch of lovely, loopy pop rock songs, none of them jokey but everyone infused with a unmistakable lightness of sprit.

Since he was the most famous member, Belew was perceived as the creative leader of the band. And when a song such as “None of the Above” shimmers with his trademark careening guitar work, it’s easy to slot the the band as an extension of Belew’s sensibility. But Belew was always quick to assert that the Bears was a true collaboration, right up to the shared lead vocal duties, with Belew and Fetters smoothly trading off the spot in front of the mic or harmonizing. Their command of tight, smart pop is all over the record, from the gallop of “Fear is Never Boring” to the pulsing, eddying “Figure It Out.” The classic palatable weirdness of the Beatles that Belew cited as an aspiration is heard most clearly on the lightly psychedelic “Man Behind the Curtain,” which is also an example the Bears’ tendency to take a couple hook-driven musical ideas and pummel them into submission.

The dream of mainstream acceptance was pretty far-fetched, if only because the Bears sounded so at home amidst the other brilliant oddballs that had some trouble leveraging their success with the college crowd. “Trust” is like Public Image Ltd. if Peter Gabriel had successfully orchestrated a hostile takeover or the band, and “Superboy” is the less lush companion piece to XTC’s own paean to Kyptonian do-gooders. These are great songs, but entirely ill-suited to challenge Whitney Houston and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam for a spot atop the Billboard chart.

But if the Bears never had a major hit, they could boast an album cover with the band’s members rendered by master Mad caricaturist Mort Drucker. In some quarters, that’s a shinier prize than a record pressed out of absolutely any precious metal.


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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