College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #443 to #441

443. Santana, Zebop! (1981)

Zebop! represented a return for Carlos Santana, in more ways that one. In the simplest, most measurable sense, the album brought the band bearing his name their greatest commercial success in years. The album was the highest-charting Santana effort in a decade, and its single “Winning,” a fairly faithful cover of a Russ Ballard song, ended a similarly lengthy drought of pushing a song into the Billboard Top 20. But Zebop! also meant an even more literal return for Carlos Santana, as it was the first album he made after severing his relationship with Indian guru Sri Chinmoy, who renamed the guitarist Devadip. After growing disenchanted with what he viewed as a cult-like atmosphere around Chinmoy’s spiritual offerings, Santana broke away and became a born-again Christian, reclaiming himself and going to work on an album that was initially meant to bear a title evoking his new religious leanings: Papa Re, which translated to “high priest.”

Santana nods to the significance of his recent transitions by opening the album with a cover of the Cat Stevens song “Changes,” which sounds exactly like what reasonably informed music fan would expect given the description “Santana performing a Cat Stevens song.” The tight jam “American Gypsy” jabs with the band’s usual sound, and “Primera Invasion” brings those same jolting Latin rhythms and echoing guitar work to counterbalance the fusion stylings of the era. Too often, though, Zebop! is almost generic in its approach. “Over and Over” is hideously bland rock could have come from any number of bands at that time, “Searchin'” is sabotaged by Alan Ligertwood’s overly piercing vocals, and “Brightest Star” sounds like a misguided attempt at inventing soft blues.

Zebop! was clearly a new beginning, but the bright light of phoenix-like revival faded quickly. The album represented Santana’s last work with longtime collaborator — and legendary promoter — Bill Graham, and the new few albums resulted in noticeably diminishing returns. Another twenty years passed before Santana had another truly significant success, but that next highlight was, by a very wide margin, the biggest hit of his career.

442. The English Beat, What Is Beat? (1983)

“I think it was because the Beat split up before they ever fulfilled the promise that a lot of people thought they had,” mused Dave Wakeling a couple years after he and his chief cohort, Ranking Roger, decided to end the band in question. “Which I’m glad happened. If there had been many more Beat records, the dream would have shattered, because internally it wasn’t nearly as strong as the reputation.”

The two-tone titans amassed plenty of U.K. across three albums and a slew of singles. Their success across the Atlantic was of more of the cult hero quality, perhaps in part because of the clumsiness of the regional identifier appended to their name because another outfit had already planted a flag in the moniker the Beat. When the dissolution of the band was formally announced, a quick compilation followed, packed with the songs that had rightly earned them a sterling reputation with discerning listeners. “Mirror in the Bathroom,”“Twist & Crawl” and “Save It for Later” (presented her in a version that was previously reserved for a twelve-inch single) are are little treasures. Those alone make What Is Beat? vital.

Sticking with the hits wasn’t the wisest commercial choice to make when plenty of record buyers already had the band’s complete discography in their respective collections, so What Is Beat? understandably includes tracks that were, at that point, otherwise relatively difficult to get. The bouncy cover of “Tears of a Clown” hadn’t previously appeared on a full-length album in the U.K. (it was dropped onto the U.S. edition of the band’s debut), and previously unreleased material includes their version of Andy Williams’s hit “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and the raucous “Ackee 1-2-3.”

Although Wakeling professed his appreciation that the Beat ended when it did, the future proved that nineteen-eighties bands with name recognition were rarely gone for good. Various reunions took places over the years, but one part of Wakeling’s satisfied elegy remains in place. Although there have been occasional rumblings, to date there have been no additional records from the Beat.

441. The Railway Children, Recurrence (1988)

Taking their name from a children’s book with a storied place in British culture, the Railway Children were a quick, massive success on the U.K. Indie chart with their 1986 debut album, Reunion Wilderness. They were quickly snapped up by Virgin Records, who dangled a lucrative contract and promised stardom. The band was put to work in the studio with producers who specialized in slick pop. The resulting album, Recurrence, is full of material polished to a blinding gleam, though the fellows in the band evidently didn’t hear it that way.

“The album is more rock than jangle as we were trying to get away from accusations that we were twee or lightweight,” insisted Gary Newby, frontman for the Railway Children, shortly after Recurrence was released. “We wanted the album to be more direct and harder, to get away from the three-chord power trip.”

There are faint signs of a band toughening up their sound on tracks such as “Merciless” and the softly epic “My Word.” Mostly, though, the Railway Children sound like exactly the act Newby says they were deliberately trying not to be. “A Pleasure” is drippy, moony college rock, like Toad the Wet Sprocket a couple years early, and “In the Meantime” puts an airy drum sound up against a lilting acoustic guitar melody, like a dorm-room lullaby. The poppy single “Over & Over” resides somewhere between Lloyd Cole and Prefab Sprout, and “No Great Objections” is thick and languid, like Tears for Fears with less verve and ambition.

Their indie cred evaporated, the Railway Children had a tough time making headway in the mainstream marketplace. Most of their singles fizzled, and their next album fared only a little better. Native Place, released in 1990, included the single “Every Beat of the Heart,” which nudged into the U.K. Top 40 and, more surprisingly, managed to top the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart, bookended by separate claims of the peak position by Jane’s Addiction. That smidge of success wasn’t quite enough to reverse the band’s slide. Two years later, the relationship with Virgin Records was ended, and the Railway Children broke up not long after.

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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