College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #524 to #521

til voices

524. ‘Til Tuesday, Voices Carry (1985)

In the late nineteen-seventies, Boston radio station WBCN started an annual battle-of-the-bands promotional event called the Rock & Roll Rumble. As usual for these sorts of undertakings, the Rock & Roll Rumble had an iffy record when it came to forecasting the bands destined for broader success, with most victors across the now forty-plus year history of the event fading into obscurity. Though there were flashes of national notoriety enjoyed by a few winners — Gang Green, the Sheila Divine, and the Dresden Dolls probably chief among them — it’s basically indisputable that ‘Til Tuesday was the act that best leveraged the opportunities afforded them by taking the Rumble’s top prize.

After winning the 1983 edition of the Rock & Roll Rumble, ‘Til Tuesday scored a major label deal with Epic Records and were paired with producer Mike Thorne, who’d overseen the first three Wire albums and Soft Cell’s hit cover of “Tainted Love,” the latter presumably of greater interest to the music execs. It’s certainly the more palatable sound of Soft Cell’s synth-based new wave that informs the resulting ‘Til Tuesday debut album, Voices Carry. In frontwoman Aimee Mann’s songwriting, there are early indications of the prickly intelligence and emotional exactitude that would soon mark her as a worthy successor to the likes of Graham Parker and Warren Zevon, but cuts such as “Love in a Vacuum” and “Maybe Monday” try to obscure her sensibility in gleaming new wave baubles. The slickest production, though, can’t disguise the anger embedded in “Don’t Watch Me Bleed” (“You tried to keep me in my place/ Said it was love that kept me there/ How could you lie right to my face?/ And smile at me, and sound so sincere”), even if the soft-goth tones of the music are a distracting mismatch with the pointed words.

“Looking Over My Shoulder” is a fine introduction to Mann’s facility for bittersweet pop, and “No More Crying” is an endearing era oddity, sounding as if a song has been plucked from the midpoint of U2 evolving into Saint Etienne. It’s the title cut that sealed the band’s legacy. Originally written as a breakup song between two women, Epic Records exacted pressure to heteronormatize it and funded a music video that emphasized the presence of a caddish boyfriend behind the lyrics of relationship distress. The video was an MTV staple, and “Voices Carry” climbed all the way to the Billboard Top 10.

 

parker real

523. Graham Parker, The Real Macaw (1983)

The Real Macaw was touted — or lamented, depending on preference and perspective — as the album that found Graham Parker shedding some of the fury that was his most distinctive quality as a songwriter. Parker was freshly settled into a state of domestic contentment with his partner, Jolie, who he married around the time of the album’s recording and release. The songs he penned, then, largely traded lacerating appraisals of human failings for mild, wistful pontificating. Album opener “Just Like a Man” takes aim at male chauvinism, but fires only rubber-tipped arrows. The lounge-adjacent and tedious “You Can’t Take Love for Granted” is more characteristic.

It’s often hard to find anything that smacks of familiar Parker craft on The Real Macaw. “A Miracle a Minute” comes across as an overt and deeply misguided attempt at making a hit song, and the drab “Beyond a Joke” halfhearted employs some Caribbean tones and a sloshy sax solo. “Passive Resistance” sounds like Parker, but a version of him with the autopilot switched on. Only “Anniversary,” a complex and earnest love song, is a  worthy addition to Parker’s songbook, and he seems to know it, jolting it further with the strongest vocal performance on the album.

Whatever Parker’s assessment of the album’s artistic merits, it was clear that something wasn’t working by this point in his career. The Real Macaw was his weakest performing album since his modest breakthrough with Squeezing Out Sparks, in 1979. Parker parted ways with Arista Records, beginning the process of agitated label-hopping that would continue, more or less, for the rest of his career.

 

pere year

522. Pere Ubu, The Tenement Year (1988)

Following a series of well-received albums in the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, the Cleveland-based art rock outfit Pere Ubu disbanded, with the various members romping off to different, equally esoteric music projects. David Thomas, provider of Pere Ubu’s distinctive lead vocals, was the most prolific, recording several solo albums with shifting backing bands. Into the rotation of collaborating musicians, Thomas recruited some of his former Pere Ubu bandmates and found the experience surprisingly agreeably, especially when they got on stage together an played some of the old songs. Around six years after what was thought to be the last Pere Ubu album, the band gave it another go, releasing The Tenement Year.

A strikingly off-kilter band, Pere Ubu didn’t exactly see the rest of the music scene — including the more daring alternative rock subgenre — catch up with them, but everyone else had gotten a little closer. The spectacular clamor or “George Had a Hat” and glamorous abstractions of “Talk to Me” are what other bands of the time aspired to when they cut loose. “Rhythm King” sounds like a sonic malfunction identified, tamed, and turned into art. The squeaky squall of “We Have the Technology” is arguably bested by the careening ingenuity of “Miss You,” which suggests a drunken jamboree held on the outer lip of a flying saucer. 

The gloriously reckless creativity Pere Ubu employed on The Tenement Year reignited the band. Unlike some other rekindled collaborations, the second wave of Pere Ubu wasn’t short-lived or even particularly sporadic. Personnel shifts happened every now and again, and the span between new music sometimes stretched fairly long as the band members aged, but Pere Ubu basically operating together from this album on.

 

blow magic

521. The Blow Monkeys, Animal Magic (1986)

Although the meaning of the song likely sailed over the heads of most listeners, “Digging Your Scene” was a daring choice for a single. Just a few years after AIDS was first clinically reported, and when the default mindset in the broader public still alternated between heartless derision and fearful hostility, the Blow Monkeys wrote and recorded a song about the ways in which members of the gay community were being further marginalized and ostracized because of the disease. As a callous teenager when the song was released, I can attest that I didn’t hear the message laced into the song’s smooth groove, but I now have little doubt that it was heard distinctly by the people who needed — truly needed — the love, acceptance, and inclusivity offered by simple being seen, as evidenced by lyrics like “I just got your message baby/ So sad to see you fade away/ What in the world is this feeling/ To catch a breath and leave me reeling/ It’ll get you in the end, its god’s revenge.”

The rest of Animal Magic, the sophomore full-length from the Blow Monkeys, similarly takes a mission-driven approach to making pop music, although I’m not sure any of the other material is quite as politically pointed, even if one of the songs flat-out suggests “Burn the Rich.” The Blow Monkeys traffic in a very refined pop music, which is understandably susceptible to the worst ideas to come out of nineteen-eighties recording studios. Some of the offenses can be forgiven with kind adjustment of retrospective forgiveness, but there’s no avenue to accepting the wanky guitar solo and mannered vocals of “Sweet Murder.”

The band is mostly an outlet for singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Dr. Robert, and Animal Logic is obviously — and sometimes endearingly — a specially build showcase for his talents. “Forbidden Fruit” sounds absolutely vast, and “I Backed a Winner (In You)” is designed to show off Dr. Robert’s easygoing croon. The title cut starts out as a fussier, pushier cousin to the Church’s ethereal jangle rock before shiftier into a drowsy version of Be Yourself Tonight–era Eurythmics. The album is imperfect, because ambition can be messy. Much as Dr. Robert instinctually wants to push into the swirling majesty of Scott Walker, Animal Logic is at its best at its leanest and simplest: the convincing pass at Northern soul on “I Nearly Died Laughing” or the tight pop song “Don’t Be Scared of Me.”

“Digging Your Scene” was an unlikely hit in the U.S., making it into the Top 20 on the Billboard chart and getting ample play on MTV. The Blow Monkeys later had even bigger hits in the U.K., but further success across the Atlantic proved elusive. The band dissolved in 1990, reunited seventeen years later, releasing as many albums in their revival as they did in their first spin on the pop music carousel.

 

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

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s