This series of posts covers my long, beloved history interacting with the medium of radio, including the music that flowed through the airwaves.
Realistically, I should have known I’d want more remnants of my time in college radio than I actually kept. I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point just before the era when every little thing was transferred — and therefore more likely to be preserved — through digital means, and I could only tote around so many stacks of paper and reel-to-reel tapes as I vagabonded my way from one scrubby apartment to another. I long for the ancient texts that were our schedules, playlists, record reviews, and airplay charts. So when I stumble upon an artifact from those days, it’s a pure delight.
There was often a strong relationship between our student-run radio station and the college newspaper with offices right next door, and the editors of the weekly publication were kind enough to print our weekly tally of top albums. Not long ago, I stumble on one of those charts, which just so happened to be from twenty-nine years ago today.
As might be expected, this list inspires a few recollections.
1. Violent Femmes, Why Do Birds Sing?
We were extremely fond of Violent Femmes during my time at WWSP-90FM, in part because we were all exactly the right age to respond to their tuneful tales of teen angst. (I was just entering my teenaged years when their self-titled debut was released, and most of my cohorts would have been in the same demographic. Additionally, in an entirely uncharacteristic booking for our campus programming group, the trio played our campus to kick off the tour for their prior album. And they were fellow Wisconsinites. How could we resist? We weren’t the only ones under the sway of this album. If I’m remembering correctly, the album’s lead single, “American Music,” topped the CMJ Top Cuts chart, remarkably the first time the Femmes achieved that feat.
2. Dream Warriors, And Now the Legacy Begins
Back then, my station was relatively slow to pick up on hip hop, but the debut from this Canadian duo clearly worked for us. It was an awfully gentle version of hip hop, which is probably the main reason we skittish Midwesterners took to it.
3. The Alarm, Raw
Just about every college rock band was sure to include an attention-getting cover on their albums during this era (the Femmes album in our top position boasted a fairly obnoxious take on Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”), and the Welsh rock band the Alarm were no exception. It’s not particularly good, but the Alarm’s version of the then-recent Neil Young song “Rockin’ in the Free World” got a lot of spins.
4. Too Much Joy, Cereal Killers
5. Various Artists, Deadicated
Tribute albums were quite the fad for college radio–friendly labels for a stretch, and this collection of Grateful Dead songs rendered by more contemporary artists allowed our DJs to scratch the classic rock itch that we otherwise denied them. I was a culprit in its success, returning repeatedly to Lyle Lovett’s pass at “Friend of the Devil.”
6. Fishbone, The Reality of My Surroundings
We had a staff member whose fandom of this band caused him to proudly bear the nickname “Bonehead.” Of course we played this relentlessly.
7. Hoodoo Gurus, Kinky
This Australian band knew exactly how to get college kids to play them on the radio: Get a little dirty.
8. R.E.M., Out of Time
College radio powerhouses, R.E.M. officially and decisively moved all the way into the mainstream with this album, thanks almost entirely to the single “Losing My Religion,” which reached the Top 5 on Billboard and was played extensively enough that it felt like a chart-topper.
9. Bodeans, Black and White
And the Wisconsin influence rears up again. Two years earlier, this band delivered the station’s most-played album of the entire year, so the follow-up faring only okay was a sort of course correction in terms of our assessment of quality. Black and White, you see, isn’t a very good record.
10. The La’s, The La’s
I remember listening to this in our production studio when it first arrived at the station and being stunned at how good it was. I rushed it right into rotation, circumventing our Music Director which made him a little mad at me. But this shouldn’t have been sitting on a desk when we had CD players and a transmitter.
11. Material Issue, International Pop Overthrow
The debut album from a phenomenal band out of Chicago. Material Issue was the sound of my summer that year.
12. Jesus Jones, Doubt
I don’t have the paperwork to prove it as I do with other years, but I’m quite certain this was the station’s most-played album that year. This also means I say with equal certainty exactly which song was playing on our airwaves when 1991 clicked over into 1992.
13. The Seers, Psych Out
I have no recollection of this album, but it definitely sounds like the sort of thing our staff — or at least a key subset of our staff — would have found briefly irresistible.
14. Julian Cope, Peggy Suicide
15. Firehose, Flyin’ the Flannel
Both of these acts had impressive college radio legacies that didn’t fully translate to affection at our station. After cursory plays when their albums came out, the DJs usually moved on.
16. Joe Jackson, Laughter & Lust
On the other hand, this Joe Jackson album got played a lot. I think the opening of “Oh Well” was used for a time as the theme song for our broadcasts of hockey games, replacing our longtime staple, the Church’s “Reptile.”
17. Loud Sugar, Loud Sugar
18. 13 Engines, A Blur to Me Now
19. The Tragically Hip, Road Apples
The Tragically Hip always did fairly well at our station, but I was always surprised they weren’t bigger for us. Their sound was exactly what we liked.
20. Crunch-O-Matic, Caution Do Not Play
21. The Choir, Circle Slide
22. Simple Minds, Real Life
I think of Simple Minds as a pure afterthought band by the nineteen-nineties, but that clearly wasn’t the case. And they kept doing well at 90FM.
23. Heads Up!, Duka
24. Vinx, Rooms in My Fatha’s House
I have zero on these two albums.
25. Lenny Kravitz, Mama Said
The second album from Lenny Kravitz, when he was still just obscure enough to seem at home on the college airwaves. That changed in a big way with his next album.
26. Dave Wakeling, No Warning
I believe this album charted for us almost entirely on the basis of one song.
27. LaTour, LaTour
28. Faith Nation, Subtle Violence
29. Smile, Seventh Record Free
Once again, I have nothing.
30. Antietam, Everywhere Outside
This was an album that CMJ, the trade publication serving college radio, absolutely loved. This is turn led us to try really, really hard to love it, too. It didn’t quite happen.
31. The Subdudes, Lucky
32. The Crash Test Dummies, The Ghosts That Haunt Me
There is some really middle of the road–style college rock here. That kind of stuff always did a little better at our station that I’d care to admit.
33. The Waterboys, The Best of the Waterboys
We often tried to minimize the play given to new “greatest hits” compilations at the station, but there was going to be no steering our DJs away from the Waterboys.
34. Various Artists, A Matter of Degrees soundtrack
It was a movie about college radio! Not that it ever got anywhere near us, but we could play the soundtrack and dream about seeing ourselves on the big screen.
35. Olodum, Ten Years
The full title is evidently 10 Years: From The Northeast Of The Sahara To The Northeast Of Brazil, and it’s an anniversary release for a Brazilian group. Sometimes the last spot on our weekly chart was given to an album as a sort of courtesy gesture.