512. Depeche Mode, Music for the Masses (1987)
For Music for the Masses, Depeche Mode’s sixth studio album, the band was in search of a new approach in the studio. Since their first recordings for Mute Records, Depeche Mode always worked with Daniel Miller, the founder and head of the label. He had a production credit on every one of the band’s prior studio albums, but tensions had risen during the making the band’s 1986 effort, Black Celebration. All involved agreed it was time to consider a producer from outside the Mute galaxy of stars, so they brought in David Bascombe, who’d served as the engineer on Tears for Fears’ Songs from the Big Chair and Peter Gabriel’s So, both massive hits. The members of Depeche Mode might have claimed the album’s title was ironic, but there’s little doubt that hopes abounded that Bascombe might take the band to the next commercial level.
At home in the U.K., the reception of Music for the Masses indicated softening support for the band, but the album swelled an already growing fan base in the U.S., with the slinky single “Strangelove” even managing to top Billboard‘s dance chart, knocking Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” from the perch. “Never Let Me Down Again,” also released as a single, is similarly accessible, taking the familiar Depeche Mode sound and applying it to an airtight track with a near-perfect hook. These are instances when the production polish only accentuates the quiet ingenuity and plain expertise of the band.
If there’s an aspect of Music for the Masses that might be an impediment for some listeners, it’s the hint of goth moroseness that blips up every now and then. “The Things You Said” is moony and glum (“I get so carried away/ You brought me down to earth/ I thought we had something precious/ Now I know what it’s worth”) and “Little 15” has an unsettling vibe. When the band turns to icy seduction, on “I Want You Now,” the prevailing sensation is beautiful agony, rendered with lyrics that could have been torn straight from a high school student’s tear-stained Mead notebook: “My heart is aching/ My body is burning/ My hands are shaking/ My head is turning.” Synthesized heavy breathing completes the smeared-mascara picture.
The masses definitely came out for the world tour in support of this album. The tour culminated with a concert at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California that was captured by renowned documentarian D.A. Pennebaker for the concert film 101.
511. Bad Company, Desolation Angels (1979)
Staples of rock radio throughout the nineteen-seventies, Bad Company basically leaned into their legacy on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy,” the opening track and lead single for Desolation Angels. Against a chunky riff and a steady beat, frontman Paul Rodgers sings, “I love the music/ And I love to see the crowd/ Dancing in the aisles/ And singin’ out loud, yeah,” and it’s about as straightforward a paean to the rock star life as could be delivered. Unsurprisingly, it became the Bad Company’s biggest hit since the heyday of “Can’t Get Enough” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”
Nothing else on Desolation Angels quite reaches the rock Valhalla of its hit single, but all the material is suitable enough examples of what can be accomplished by a few dudes with the classic combo of guitars, bass, and drums, with the occasional keyboard part thrown in for spice. “Lonely for Your Love” is textbook classic rock, and “Oh, Atlanta” is the same with a touch of hoedown to it. “Gone, Gone, Gone” is one of the least anguished songs about missing a departed lover to be found in the annals of the form: “I’m gonna miss you cleanin’ round the home/ And help me with my blues/ You know, I think I’ll get myself a maid/ And take her on a cruise.”
Like many of their peers, Bad Company is less convincing when they slow things down, as demonstrated by the warbled “Early in the Morning.” But they also deserve some credit “Take the Time,” which could briefly convince the inattentive that James Taylor is coming through the speakers. For a nineteen-seventies ballad, the outcome could be far worse. That same faint praise can be applied to the entirety of Desolation Angels. It might not be great, but it’s sturdy.
510. McGuinn, Clark & Hillman, McGuinn, Clark & Hillman (1979)
The album cover of McGuinn, Clark & Hillman makes the case for music inside. In an unorthodox choice, the front cover includes liner notes that are usually relegated to the back or the inner sleeve. On the album, former Byrds Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark, and Chris Hillman “write a new, contemporary chapter that forges a link with their legendary pasts and the promise of their futures,” according to music journalist Stephen Peeples. While that statement is inarguably true on the surface of it, the music pressed into the grooves sounds less like an ingenious hybrid of the bygone and forward-thinking than more of the same muddled soft rock that was woefully easy to find circa 1979.
The chiming guitars that were the most distinctive feature of the Byrds’ sound are almost entirely absent on the album, replaced by a smoothness that makes McGuinn, Clark & Hillman sound like John Denver with less of an edge. The bland “Long, Long Time” and tepid boogie number “Release Me Girl” are indicative of an album that plods along without ever quite getting anywhere. “Don’t You Write Her Off” has some of the acoustic sunniness of nineteen-seventies Paul Simon efforts and even hint of disco influence, which is at least distinctive. There’s also a cloying quality to many of the tracks, such as hippie-dippy love song “Feelin’ Higher” and the schlocky “Surrender to Me.” It becomes downright unbearable on the closing track “Bye Bye Baby,” which includes the lyrics “She kicks up her heels like a filly running wild/ Inside a woman’s body is the soul of a child/ Like the seasons she’s changing/ Like a bird soaring high/ Ah, you can’t help but love her when you look in her eye.”
It all sounds dreadful to me, but I’ll allow a closing rebuttal from Peeples, who evidently anticipated complaints and decided to preemptive dismiss them: “There is a timeless quality in McGuinn, Clark and Hillman that renders analysis insignificant. More importantly, it deserves to be heard by everyone.”
509. The B-52’s, The B-52’s (1979)
“This is the best debut album of the year,” proclaimed New Music Express. “No conditions, no exceptions.”
By the time The B-52’s arrived in record store, in July 1979, the year had already seen first albums from Joe Jackson, Stiff Little Fingers, Rickie Lee Jones, the Fall, Simple Minds, the Pop Group, the Cure, the Undertones, the Knack, and Joy Division. The determination of superiority was no small matter. The revolution delivered can be easy to overlook now, given the way the band evolved into a brand, with a couple massive hits and and the party mix ubiquity of several other entries in their career catalog. By the time the Muppets aired a remarkably faithful rendition of the band’s first single, the B-52’s were simply in the canon, as safe and familiar as the Doobie Brothers or the Jackson 5. At the end of the nineteen-seventies, though, no one else sounded quite like this. In its way, the music was as wild as disruptive as punk rock.
The B-52’s were admirably cautious in making the jump from their home base of Athens, Georgia to the national scene, rejecting offers from Virgin Records, Radar Records, and Sire Records before signing with Warner Bros. Recorded in the Bahamas with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, producing, the band’s debut is full of retro rock spruced up with modern verve, a deliberate sense of kitsch knocking aside nostalgia to let the sounds live again. One of the first hits Blackwell produced was Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollypop,” and The B-52’s almost sounds like the ancestor of that odd, infectious pop hit. If Millie Small had been the Beatles, everyone would have sounded like the B-52’s by the late seventies.
“Rock Lobster” is the album’s signature song, but the album is filled with tracks that make the loopy logical. “Planet Claire” celebrates a woman from outer space with flourishes of sonic oddness that sounds like they were nicked from and Ed Wood movie and lyrics explaining “She drove a Plymouth Satellite/ Faster than the speed of light.” “Lava” offers the pure delight of the Fred Schneider’s sullen threat “I’m gonna jump in a crater” getting rhymed with the dismissive response “See ya later.” “Hero Worship” is a thumping wonder and “Dance This Mess Around” rattles its own sunny American Bandstand vibe with some amazing punk-style wailing by Cindy Wilson and a deliberate beat that almost like something Wire might have used on one of their earlier albums.
The album closes with a cover of the Petula Clark hit “Downtown,” a choice that is at once inevitable and entirely unnecessary. The B-52’s were true originals. There was no fitting someone else’s song into their streamer-strewn paradigm.
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.
One thought on “College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #512 to #509”
This is the second review of McGuinn, Clark & Hillman I’ve read in the last month–the other was Steve Simels’s take in the April 1979 issue of Stereo Review. He concurred, calling it “the most unconscionable sellout in recent memory.” I guess I thought the single was fine enough when it was on AT40 for a few weeks that spring, but I didn’t give it much thought once it fell off the charts.