College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #491 to #489

suburbs love

491. The Suburbs, Love is the Law (1984)

Serving as the trailblazers in a Minneapolis rock scene that went a long way towards defining alternative music in the pre-grunge era, the Suburbs were prepared to make a proper stab at the mainstream in the middle on the nineteen-eighties. Originally perpetrators of arty, angular punk songs, the Suburbs made a deliberate shift to more broadly palatable pop-inflected music, earning them the ire of some of their municipal peers.

“It was decision to make this insistent kind of music that could move people, and make them dance,” explained Chan Poling, frontman for the Suburbs, of the sound the band described as “underground disco music.”

When the Suburbs moved from hometown label Twin/Tone to major label PolyGram, with the album Love is the Law, they had their new, polished form down. The title cut, based on some scrawled graffiti spotted by Poling, is bouncy, bright, and big, like a more fun version of Simple Minds. (Years later, the song’s sentiment and upbeat spirit made it the perfect anthem for those fighting for marriage equality.) “Accept Me Baby” is funky and weird, like a first-draft Morphine song, and “Rainy Day” has the earthy elegance of prime Lloyd Cole. With confidence and aplomb, the Suburbs explore multiple sonic variants across the album, including enjoyably glum guitar rock “Monster Man” and a jittery, funk-laced workout “Crazy Job.”

Enjoyable overall, the album doesn’t entirely avoid the pitfalls of the era.“Skin” is scarred by yucky eighties synths, and other tracks have moments that come dangerously close to cloying slickness. Those a minor issues, though, easy to ignore when considering how Love is the Law is slyly innovative and sometimes distinctly ahead of its time, forecasting future pop iconoclasts such as Future Islands. If anything, Love is the Law might have been too forward-thinking. Dissatisfied with the commercial response, PolyGram dropped the Suburbs after one album.

 

doobie minute

490. The Doobie Brothers, Minute by Minute (1978)

The Doobie Brothers started 1978 by showing up in a highly unlikely place. The band appeared on the ABC sitcom What’s Happening!!, playing themselves in a two-part episode centered on the evils of bootlegging concerts. They closed out the year by releasing their eighth studio album, Minute by Minute, which proved to be the biggest commercial success of their career. It logged a total of five weeks atop the Billboard album chart and yielded three Top 40 singles, including the defining #1 hit “What a Fool Believes.” For a harrowing pop culture moment, the Doobie Brothers were inescapable.

Album opener “Here to Love You” epitomizes the single-gear aesthetic of the Doobies, drifting along at a mid-range tempo with singer Michael McDonald baritoning out laughably bland lyrics (“Well, let me just go down as saying/ That I’m glad to be here/ Here with all the same pain and laughs everybody knows”) as everyone plays their instruments with unobtrusive professionalism, as if they’re expecting someone us to step up and take a solo at any minute. That familiar combo of uninspiring elements is still better than those instances when guitarist Patrick Simmons spells McDonald on lead vocal durties, such as the drab disco number “Dependin’ on You” and the bluesy “Don’t Stop to Watch the Wheels.”

Listening to Minute to Minute is a hunt for stray bit that escape the rut: Nicolette Larson’s sweet, brief guest vocals on “Sweet Feelin” or the passable instrumental hoedown “Steamer Lane Breakdown.” Perhaps tellingly, those moments feel like the band goofing around, less concerned with delivering pristine, rightly controlled music and more interested in having a little fun in the studio. The album that made a hit out of speculation on the belief systems of fools ends by posing the musical question “How Do the Fools Survive?” emphasizing the redundancy of thought that makes the Doobie Brothers one of the duller bands of their era. The disruptions, no matter how minor, to their heavily used patterns were the only elements that merited attention.

 

u2 wide

489. U2, Wide Awake in America (1985)

No part of Wide Awake in America was recorded in the United States. A stopgap release that hit just a couple weeks after the conclusion of the major North American leg of U2’s tour in support of The Unforgettable Fire, which came out the previous year, the EP consistent of two live tracks on one side and a couple songs that didn’t make the cut for the preceding album. The Unforgettable Fire brought U2 their first U.S. 40 hit with “Pride (In the Name of Love),” but it stalled at a mediocre #33 on the Billboard chart, despite saturation play on MTV. Even if the full commercial breakthrough hadn’t arrived, the fan base was building fast, as evidenced by the band sticking with arenas when they toured the U.S. and Canada from February to May. Providing a quick affordable record that felt like a tour souvenir was a shrewd move.

The two live tracks improve significantly on songs that feel overproduced on The Unforgettable Fire. Recorded live at a Wembley Stadium soundcheck and then layered with crowd noise in the studio, “A Sort of Homecoming” has a lean forthrightness and emotionally rich vocals from Bono. And “Bad,” an overlong anchor in its studio realization, becomes bold, freeing, and anthemic, practically defining the unique alchemy of U2 at their best, when they can make a song and sentiment feel intimate and massive at the same time.

Both castoffs from The Unforgettable Fire feel properly omitted from the full album. “The Three Sunrises” comes across as a soulless exercise, the sort of cut that might have been improved by another pass at it but also doesn’t hold enough promise to suggest it would be worth the effort. The probing, intricate “Love Comes Tumbling” is more interesting, if only because the band seems to be trying to channel Wave-era Patti Smith (the song pairs nicely with the band’s later cover of Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot”). The cuts are inessential except to diehards, but by then the band was starting to inspire quite a few of those diehards, all ready and eager to pledge their allegiance by seeking out any available additions to the collection.

 

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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