479. Roxy Music, Flesh + Blood (1980)
After Roxy Music returned from an extended hiatus to make the 1979 album Manifesto, they found themselves making significant adjustments intended to insinuate their music into the marketplace. Songs from the album were given a fresh polish when released as singles, clearly with an aim of finding a place in the booming business of discotheques. When it came time for the next album, the band had completely adapted to the idea of making dance-friendly pop songs, albeit with a deference to the suave stylings — defined by the dripping elegance of Bryan Ferry’s vocals — that had always been the most distinctive characteristic of the band’s sound.
Flesh + Blood, the album produced under this modified strategy, is an odd beast. It’s Roxy Music to the core, but with a prevailing tone that alternates between desperate and condescending. The chintzy synths on the syrupy “Oh Yeah” feel like the band employing the bare amount of creative effort to pander to the masses, and “Over You” is similarly crass, though with a little more steel in its spine. A couple of covers on the album provide the starkest example of where Roxy Music is at on the record. A take on “In the Midnight Hour” is so lackadaisical it is pure lounge act stuff. “Eight Miles High” is more interesting, if only because it’s so peculiar to hear the chiming, hippie-ish acoustic keening of the Byrds transformed into one of Roxy Music’s smooth-groove shuffles.
Roxy Music was seven albums and ten years deep at this point, so even their most detached efforts could yield reasonably palatable work. “Same Old Scene” benefits from the band’s old familiar slink providing a nice contrasting undercurrent to the dingo-tinged surface, and “Running Wild” is a languid ballad with a touch of lovely gloom to it. If it’s not material that deserves a prime place in the Roxy Music canon, the better tracks show there are still skilled, formidable practitioners in the band’s dwindling lineup. (In addition to Ferry, guitarist Phil Manzanera and saxophonist Andy Mackay were still in the band, a far cry from the sextet that band was for their most famed recordings.) Writing off Roxy Music as a fading act would be a mistake. Sure enough, the band’s most commercially successful studio albums was still to come.
478. Depeche Mode, Construction Time Again (1983)
Mute Records had some extra money in their coffers, so they went out and bought a new toy. Thanks in part to the success of the first two Depeche Mode albums (and thanks even more to Yazoo’s Upstairs at Eric’s and its worldwide hit singles, “Only You” and “Don’t Go”), the record label was able to secure a Synclavier, the game-changing synthesizer then most famous for becoming one of Quincy Jones’s favorite tools when he produced Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Studio access to the new device combined with the new presence of Alan Wilder in the band’s lineup — and his predilection for playing with bizarre sampled rhythms — set Depeche Mode on the path to making an album that brought a whole new level of sonic experimentation to their music.
Whether that sonic experimentation was a good choice is another question. With its sounds of bouncing ping pong balls and other spirited fuss, “Pipeline” winds up sounding like a workingman’s dirge recorded in a busy rec room. “Told You So” is nicely skittery, and “The Landscape is Changing” cut its smooth groove with plunking electronic noises. “Love, In Itself” is surprisingly bland, except for the occasional discordance of synth sounds that sound like they were accidentally cut-and-pasted in from a completely different song. All the fuss gives Construction Time Again the feel of an album to get lost in, though less like luxuriating in lush soundscapes and more like walking through an aural hedge maze littered with trip hazards. “Everything Counts,” a sly, focused track that would eventually become one of Depeche Mode’s best-loved singles, is one of the few instances when the band gets out of their own way to make a sharply focused pop song.
At the time, Construction Time Again was largely viewed as a setback for Depeche Mode. It was their first album that failed to chart in the U.S., and the critical response was filled with decidedly unkind appraisals, some of which took the band to task for political commentary in the lyrics that was earnest but clumsy. Depeche Mode was still finding their path.
477. UB40, UB40 (1988)
UB40 showed up on the London music scene at the same time as a fleet of other artists who played ska with goofball abandon. As the end of the nineteen-eighties, the sprawling outfit from Birmingham had outlasted practically everyone else. They were on their eighth studio album in 1988, a release they decided should be self-titled.
UB40 is easygoing to the point of being slack. As opposed to the boisterous cuts unleashed by the Beat or the Specials, UB40 felt like the band that was there to help usher in the cool-down portion of a night. The album opens with “Dance with the Devil,” the kind of go-nowhere jam a band might play at the beginning of a concert to gradually figure out if everybody is ready to go. “You’re Always Pulling Me Down” is similarly bereft of urgency, and “I Would Do for You” locks onto its simple hook and churns it out for over five minutes, a span that feels endless. “Where Did I Go Wrong” is loose noodling, and “Music So Nice” lopes along with no evident intent of getting anywhere.
There’s an attempt at repeating the earlier success of the band’s “I Got You Babe” cover by recruiting Chrissie Hynde to take a pass at Dusty Springfield’s “Breakfast in Bed.” The on instance of the band sounding fully committed is “Contaminated Minds,” a pointed musical diatribe against the sort of regressive politics that reigned during the decade (“Some people say that revolution will descend/ On this madness end this confusion/ But we’ve all heard the privileged boast and preach/ And the promised land we want is still out of reach”). UB40 wakes up when they’ve got something to say.
In a strange turn, UB40 had their biggest U.S. hit in the wake of UB40. But the single that delivered the success wasn’t from the album. The band’s version of Neil Diamond “Red Red Wine” was included on Labour of Love, an album of all covers released five years earlier. The unlikely resurgence of the song was credited to Phoenix radio program director Guy Zapoleon, who put the song into heavy rotation at his station. Enough other broadcasters followed suit that the track topped the Billboard charts that autumn.
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.