College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #488 to #486

pretenders extended

488. The Pretenders, Extended Play (1981)

The Pretenders delivered a major hit with their self-titled debut album, and the record label wanted more. An English band fronted by a tough, charismatic American, the Pretenders melded classic rock ‘n’ roll structures with a modern sensibility better than any of their peers, and they were duly rewarded with enviable record sales, especially in the U.K. After a worldwide tour that helped build their audience, the band went back into the studio to start work on their sophomore full-length effort. In the U.K., the record store culture allowed for singles to keep a band in the public consciousness, but that model had been long out of favor in the U.S. After the band put out a couple stopgap singles, notching hits with both, Sire Records scrambled to find a method to keep the flagging attention of North American music fans, settling on an EP, a format itself novel enough at the time that execs decided the record should bear the flatly explanatory title Extended Play.

The record is a treasure, if only because it leads with the phenomenal “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town,” both catchy, churning, and chiming, either of them compelling evidence that the Pretenders were the preeminent singles act of the day. Together, they’d inspire anyone arguing the point to declare, “Case closed.” Both tracks carried over to the band’s next studio album, which continued the clarity of titling by bearing the name Pretenders II.

The next two songs on EP were leftovers from their debut album, each used as a B-side in the U.K. “Porcelain” features typically punchy guitar work that simmers down so Chrissie Hynde can lay slithery vocals on top, and “Cuban Slide” deploys a hand-jive groove on the way to being fun but merely serviceable, at least compared to the other tracks. The Extended Play closes with a cut unique to it, a lithe, potent live version of “Precious,” recorded at New York City’s Central Park. It all adds up to a tidy, satisfying package that did its job. Extended Play crossed into the Top 30 on the Billboard album chart and helped fill the gap until the Pretenders’ second album arrived five months later.

 

pete best

487. Pete Townshend, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes (1982)

“This is the first record I’ve ever made during which I felt there was no hope whatsoever to try to repair my lost love for my wife and family or to repair the damage I felt I’d unwittingly laid on my friends and my relationship with the other guys in the band, the Who,” Pete Townshend explained open the release of All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, his third solo album. “And the songs, as a result, each a reflection of what it’s like to feel alone, I think, and yet still be yearning for lost emotions and power.”

Townshend was certainly going through some personal and professional tumult at the time he made the album. He was going through a rough patch with his first wife, Karen Astley, and the Who were on uncertain ground, a natural situation for a relatively long-in-the-tooth rock band, but compounded by the death a few years earlier of drummer Keith Moon. And his political fires had recently been rejuvenated from fading embers by the ongoing Rock Against Racism efforts, which forced Townshend to consider his own complacency in a society that offered him automatic favor simply because of the color of his skin. If Townshend wasn’t trying to reach out to others on All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes, maybe the album is best understood as the venerated artist trying to understand himself.

Of course, the often literal aspect of Townshend’s songwriting invites precisely that interpretation. On the wise and lovely “The Sea Refuses No River,” inspired by his own struggles with heroin addiction, Townshend concludes by declaring, “The river is where I am,” and there’s little doubt that he’s not hiding behind an invented character. And “Slit Skirts,” which stands with the very best in Townshend’s might songbook, lays out the emotional parameters of a wounded relationship with acute intimacy. Because it’s about the discomfort of conflict and the widening distance between lovers, the song is even enhanced by its flaws, as when Townshend’s lyrics go from the sublime “And I know that when she thinks of me, she thinks of me as him” straight to the leaden “But, unlike me, she don’t work off her frustrations in the gym.”

A restless experimenter, Townshend fills the album with sonic diversions. The stiffly theatrical “Stop Hurting People” and hyper-caffeinated leftover sixties art rock of “Communication” put the instinct on display to mediocre effect. On “Uniforms (Corp d’Esprit),” Townshend swings in the direction of full-on new wave, as if he wanted to make a more serious Men Without Hats song. The questing is admirable, but Townshend doesn’t have quiet enough to say to fill an entire album. “Somebody Saved Me” is a leftover from Face Dances, the Who album from the previous year, and it sounds like something ill-advisedly retrieving from a rejects pile.

When Townshend turned his attention back to the Who, he found they’d gotten to work without him, staging rehearsals with guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low in his place. It was the latest of a string of ill omens regarding the future of the band. The Who’s next studio album, It’s Hard, was the last under that name for over twenty years, though there were ceaseless strings of artlessly rearranged hits collections and cash-in live outings during the interim.

 

pat crimes

486. Pat Benatar, Crimes of Passion (1980)

After famously launching with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the obvious choice under the circumstances, MTV moved on to their second music video, “You Better Run” by Pat Benatar. A cover of a Top 20 hit for the Young Rascals, the song had served as the lead single from Benatar’s sophomore album, Crimes of Passion. The single had been a middling performer that peaked just outside the Top 40, but it wasn’t a proper harbinger of the album’s commercial future. The next single, “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” carried Benatar into the Billboard Top 10 for the first time and helped Crimes of Passion rocket up the album chart, where it spent five weeks in the runner-up spot behind John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy, which was selling relentlessly in the wake of Lennon’s tragic death.

Although Crimes of Passion cemented Benatar as a rock star and gave her a signature hit, she wasn’t particularly happy with the album, neither at the time nor years later. Chrysalis Records paired Benatar with producer Keith Olsen, who’d previous worked with the likes of Fleetwood Mac and the Grateful Dead. Benatar felt it was a mismatch, and her assessment is backed up by tracks such as “Never Wanna Leave You,” which sounds as if could have been teleported over from Fleetwood Mac, and “Prisoner of Love,” the slick, soft production cools the material to the very definition of tepid.

Especially at the time, Benatar was a more interesting performer than Crimes of Passion suggested, bringing a muscular certainty to “Treat Me Right” and even acquiting herself surprisingly well on a cover of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.” It was her idea to write a song about child abuse, which resulted in the dark “Hell is for Children.”  If overly didactic and simple in its lyrics (“And you know that their little lives can become such a mess”), the song is admirable in addressing a social woe that was hardly the usual province of pop music.

Whatever skirmishes Benatar had with Olsen, there’s no more healing salve in the music business than commercial success. The producer was invited back for Benatar’s next album, Precious Time. That record was Bentar’s first — and to date only — to go to the very top of Billboard‘s album chart.

 

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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