College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #440 to #438

440. Depeche Mode, Speak & Spell (1981)

“When we did Speak & Spell, we were very young and naive,” Dave Gahan said of Depeche Mode’s debut album. “We got slagged off for being teenyboppers because we didn’t care what was hip.”

While distinctly removed in tone from the rest Depeche Mode’s discography, it likely wasn’t solely naiveté that shaped the unique sound of Speak & Spell. The band’s debut was also their only studio album with founding member Vince Clarke still on board, and he was largely responsible for the songwriting. As opposed to the moody, goth-adjacent synth yearning that would be the band’s trademark in future years, Speak & Spell is filled with tracks such as the bright burble “New Life,” and “What’s Your Name?,” which is the closest Depeche Mode ever came to retro pop. Although enduring band members Martin Gore, Andy Fletcher, and Gahan are all in place, there are only hints of an artistic through line that goes all the way to, say, “Enjoy the Silence.” It’s easier to find the thread to Clarke’s later bands Yazoo and Erasure.

The disconnect from the future isn’t inherently a flaw. If anything, it creates an interesting dynamic when the album is heard with knowledge of all that’s to come. “Nodisco” is irony metalurgied into a hook, and “Boys Say Go!” is Frankie Goes to Hollywood without the acute sense of drama. The instrumental “Big Muff,” one of two songs on the album written by Gore, moves with an antic energy, and the U.K. hit single “Just Can’t Get Enough” is pretty irresistible. There are definitely times when the approach doesn’t work as well (“Dreaming of Me” numbing in its robotic precision), but Speak & Spell is mostly an admirable dance pop record, appealing because of the simplicity that earned it some initial criticism.

439. Bauhaus, Burning from the Inside (1983)

Bauhaus were coming off something of a breakthrough year when they recorded their fourth album, Burning from the Inside. They scored an unlikely U.K. hit with a version of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and technically costarred with the man whose song they covered when they performed their goth rock standard “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in the opening credits of The Hunger. There’s no reason for a band this beautifully gloomy to have a smooth path laid down for them, though. When it came time to start work on a new record, lead singer Peter Murphy was felled by a bout of pneumonia. His bandmates didn’t wait for his recovery, pushing on with the creation of the new record, even occasionally taking over on vocals. The situation contributed to a rift that led to the dissolution of the band not long after the release of the album, titled Burning From the Inside.

If the album is compromised in its creation, it still sounds like a fine extension of the luxuriant bleakness the band previously established. The jagged, fulsome “She’s in Parties” and thick-fog beauty and menace of the title cut are familiar in the best way, and “King Volcano” is spindly and ornate, like the music that might accompany a performance by haunted marionettes. But there’s admittedly also a sense of more distinct pop sensibilities seeping in. “Slice of Life” recalls classic British pop, if a version of it with a few dashes of ethereal gloss and a sharpened-razor swipe of punk intensity. And the miter-saw rhythm on “Honeymoon Croon” tips its cap to the punk and post-punk of the era, while moving the aural technique into the slickness of the nineteen-eighties.

By their fundamental sensibility, Bauhaus felt like a band that shouldn’t last and should instead disperse to spread their spooky tunefulness more broadly, like a roaming mist. Murphy went on to a reasonably successful solo career, and the remaining members all dabbled in different corners of the music industry, achieving their greatest success as Love and Rockets.

438. Agent Orange, This Is the Voice (1986)

Agent Orange started bashing out their brand of punk-punched rock in Placentia, California, in the nineteen-seventies. They put out an early single that garnered them quick, loving attention from the more daring local radio stations. It was followed by their first full-length studio album, Living in Darkness, released in 1981. The follow-up arrived five years later. By that time, the band had made the jump to Enigma Records, getting them a big national push.

This Is the Voice straddles a tricky tightrope between fevered punk and big, gloppy rock, usually drifting more in the stage-fogged zone of the latter. The unsettled evolution is in full evidence on “Voices (In the Night),” which is further dragged into album-rock dross by inane lyrics (“In a violent place/ I walk alone down empty streets/ I turn my head, did someone call my name?”). At times, Agent Orange almost keeps pace with California contemporaries who more artfully transitions from ragged punk to potent rock, almost sounding like X of the same era on “…So Strange” and approaching the hard-candy smack of All on “Say It Isn’t True” or “Tearing Me Apart.” Other times, they seem to make a concerted effort to duplicate the hit-making alchemy of other acts, as on “In Your Dreams Tonight,” which employ prominent drums, swooping melody, and yearning vocals to ape U2 or Big Country. Like a lot of the bands of their ilk, Agent Orange is at their best when they simply try to make big, loud, happily dumb songs that reinvent the more distant past. “I Kill Spies” finds the band in fine fettle as they race through a rough and ragged surf rock number.

Although Agent Orange remained an ongoing concern, always with singer-guitarist Mike Palm at the front, they weren’t especially prolific. Since This is the Voice, Agent Orange has released only one other full-length studio album, Virtually Indestructible, in 1996.

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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