College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #446 to #444

446. Neil Young, Trans (1982)

Neil Young was living through a strange time in the early nineteen-eighties, so it makes sense that he made some strange records. A cranky iconoclast often misconstrued as a folksy troubadour, Young simultaneously came upon personal and professional crossroads, parting with his longtime label, Reprise Records, and putting considerable energy into the care of his son Ben, born in 1978 with severe cerebral palsy. Taking a certain amount of refuge in his art, Young burrowed into the new devices at his disposal in the studio, including synthesizers and a vocoder. Partially inspired by Kraftwerk and other European electronic boundary-pushers, Young started tinkering with his songs, adding layers of effects and significantly distorting his own vocals. The result was Trans, which became Young’s first outing for Geffen Records, then a new label that lured the performer with the promise of complete creative control. Although Young was determinedly private about his son’s condition at the time, he later acknowledged the music he made was a reflection of the distance he felt from his nonverbal child.

“You see, my son is severely handicapped, and at that time was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people,” Young told Mojo magazine. “That’s what Trans is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something but you can’t understand what it is. Well, that’s the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.”

If Young’s intentions were good, the execution was problematic, driven in part by a rushed process in mixing the album. But there’s also an mortifying simplicity to the examination of a technological age in the album’s thematically linked songs, perhaps exemplified by “We R in Control,” which could have been slotted onto Styx’s inane robot fantasia Kilroy Was Here (“We’re controlling traffic lights/ We control computer flights/ We control the chief of staff”). But Young is also too naturally gifted a songwriter to collapse into complete disaster, and there are glimmers or real inspiration. “Computer Age,” with its bright melody and easy flow is not that different from the sound that would earn Daft Punk bedazzled accolades a generation later. Essentially covering himself with a take on the Buffalo Springfield nugget “Mr. Soul” further argues that Young deserved to bend the music to his will and whims with the general assurance that the foundations of his craft were strong enough to support countless variations of sonic structure.

If anything, the most glaring flaw of Trans is that it’s sometimes too tentative. The cuts “Little Thing Called Love” and “Hold On to Your Love” are blandly basic pop-rock that might have gotten a boost from Young bringing more oddball experimentation to them. The execs at Geffen weren’t itching to see Young play around the fringes more. Despite the pledge of artistic freedom in their overtures to Young, the label was damningly disdainful of the material he presented to them, rejecting his first set of songs (which would have been a loose concept album about sailing and ancient civilizations called Island in the Sun) and delaying the release of Trans until the moribund sales period of the week after Christmas. Geffen later sued Young, alleging he broke their contact by producing “uncharacteristic” music, citing Trans a prime example.

445. Midnight Oil, Red Sails in the Sunset (1984)

“Typical Oils, really: One the verge of international success, and we make a record that only third generation Antipodeans can understand,” Rob Hirst, percussionist for Midnight Oil, told Spin at about the time Red Sails in the Sunset got its belated released in the U.S.

The fifth full-length studio effort from Australian rock band Midnight Oil sat in stasis in the Columbia Records vaults for about six months while label bosses squabbled with the band about the perceived lack of a surefire chart hit. Certainly, the preoccupation with specifically Australian topics in the songs’ lyrics had stirred concern among the businessmen. How could North American record-buyer possibly make heard or tails, they wondered, out of “Sleep,” a swirling epic about rampant poverty driven by prejudice, or “Jimmy Sharman’s Boxers,” a slow-build powerhouse that condemns a bygone impresario who exploitatively set aboriginal Australians against one another in prize fights? As the Midnight Oil players themselves noted, the title “Kosciusko” was sure to be mispronounced by the uninitiated, even if the track’s propulsive fury was quickly identifiable in any culture.

And yet Midnight Oil were indeed on the cusp of bigger things. Already titans in their homeland, the band was stirring the first inklings of interest elsewhere, and Red Sails in the Sunset amply demonstrates why. The material on the album has the big boom required to fill an arena if given the opportunity, but it’s also slyly innovative and highly varied. “When the Generals Talk” locks into a tightly controlled post-disco groove, “Bells and Horns in the Back of Beyond” suggests a rock-intoned theme song for the outback version of a spaghetti Western, and “Helps Me Helps You” is like a Bo Diddley bounder if he came of age in a different hemisphere. Cuts such as “Best of Both Worlds” and “Minutes to Midnight” are fine straightforward rock, providing a handy entrance to those who needed the comfort of the classic guitars-bass-drum combo. But once into the record, Midnight Oil was committed to giving brave souls something more.

In the U.S., Red Sails in the Sunset performed almost exactly as well as its immediate predecessor, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, which is to say that it made the barest of ripples on the album chart. And Columbia was right — or were susceptible to self-fulfilling their prophecy — and the album didn’t contain a crossover hit single. But bigger and better things were on the horizon for Midnight Oil. And when the breakthrough came, it was with another album that was also very much informed by the political and social concerns of their home turf.

444. The Jazz Butcher, Bloody Nonsense (1986)

Pat Fish formed his band of many names in Oxford, England, in 1982. With his friend Max Elder on board, Fish starting making deliberately odd and casually vibrant music under the name the Jazz Butcher, with the moniker occasionally altered to be the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy or, when Fish was feeling especially loquascious, the The Jazz Butcher And His Sikkorskis From Hell. Impressively prolific through the first half of the nineteen-eighties, the band was a prime candidate for compilations that endeavored to pull together their best material, and that was the task undertaken for Big Time Records, resulting in the album Bloody Nonsense.

It’s difficult to say if Bloody Nonsense is any better or worse an introduction to the Jazz Butcher than anything else. There’s a breezy appeal to the band’s approach, like Stephin Merritt’s later triumphs of offhand creativity, though, in the case of the Jazz Butcher, the foundational text is post-punk anxiety rather than Cole Porter cleverness. “Southern Mark Smith” is a bouncy, jittery diversion, and “The Jazz Butcher Vs. The Prime Minister” is a small wonder of bounding weirdness. The band makes the rounds of music genre pastiches with the loose swing of “Partytime” and the jokey hoedown “The Devil is My Friend.” Playful goofing aside, the Jazz Butcher is an impressively crafty pop band, lobbing out chiming charmer such as “Big Saturday” and “Rain” as reassurances that they play exactly the same game as Aztec Camera or the Housemartins if they really wanted to.

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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