College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #425 to #423

425. Big Country, The Seer (1986)

The intent was a return to the band’s roots. Big Country had the sort of hit debut that bands dream about. The Crossing, released in 1983, sold enough copies to earn a gold certification in the U.S. and platinum certifications in the U.K. and Canada. And the self-name-checking single “In a Big Country” was a U.S. Top 40 single that had a far greater presence that its chart peak suggested, its prominence boosted significantly from regular airplay on MTV. The band’s 1984 sophomore effort, Steeltown, failed to build on that initial success, so the Scottish mates looked to their homeland for inspiration when it came time to write and record again, evidently feeling the purity of purpose would give them a creative and commercial boost.

The band’s label, Mercury Records, disagreed with the strategy. After the band turned in the version shepherded by producer Robin Millar, label execs didn’t like what they heard and subsequently recruited Walter Turbitt, who’d recently served as engineer on Cyndi Lauper’s smash hit album She’s So Unusual (as, likely less pertinently for the decision makers, Bad Brains’ Rock for Light), to give it a polish for the marketplace. There are still clear signs of Big Country’s collective intention, as heard on the booming “Remembrance Day,” about the Highland Clearances that got underway in the seventeenth century, and the jig-like title cut, with guest vocals by Kate Bush that provide a dash more evocation of ethereal mountain mists. It’s also easy to discern the passages where Turbitt’s glossy touch evidently prevailed: the vanilla Celtic rock of “One Great Thing” and the prog-rock fusion tinge on “The Red Fox” as chief examples. “Hold the Heart” is right on the cusp of power ballad, like Icehouse at their most bombastically empty.

An understandable result given the artist-unfriendly tinkering, much of The Seer teeters between assertive and muddles. “The Sailor” builds in bristling energy, and “I Walk the Hill” gets by on the strength of lead singer Stuart Adamson’s yowling vocals. “Look Away” is a clean, simple song with an anthemic chorus, maybe the closest Big Country ever came to fulfilling, however briefly, the early promise that they were equipped to deliver a string of big, satisfying rock singles

The Seer performed well in the U.K., but it registered only the mildest of rebounds in the U.S., suggesting that their opportunity had come and gone. Big Country persisted, but they would register only one more album on the U.S. charts, the feeble performer Peace in Our Time, released in 1988.

424. Blondie, Autoamerican (1980)

“We were always trying to be creative and do something a little different,” Debbie Harry told American Songwriter, reflecting years later on how she and Blondie bandmate Chris Stein approached the recording of the band’s fifth album, Autoamerican. “That was always sort of an understanding between me and Chris, that we were always going to try to break boundaries and try new things.”

It would have been simple — and probably advisable — for Blondie to create a sonic replica of their preceding two albums, the 1978 commercial breakthrough Parallel Lines and 1979’s Eat to the Beat, both of which went platinum while delivering four separate Top 40 singles, including the chart-topper “Heart of Glass.” Early in 1980, they solidified their chart authority with “Call Me,” a cut produced by Giorgio Moroder for the American Gigolo soundtrack. Released as a single in February, the song spent six weeks on top of the Billboard chart and was later anointed the biggest hit of the year. When Blondie got to work on Autoamerican, they were basically given the latitude to do whatever they wanted. On the evidence of the material on the album, they wanted to do absolutely everything.

Autoamerican opens with “Europa,” a spinning diamond of orchestral drama that builds Harry delivering an odd recitation that sounds like the opening to a concept album about cars: “Based on the desire for total mobility/ And the serious physical pursuit of religious freedom/ The auto drove mankind further than the wheel.” That gives way to the simmering disco groove “Live It Up” and then vocal jazz pastiche “Here’s Looking at You.” Combine that shape-shifting opening salvo with the horn-stuff swing of “Go Through It,” the airy, gloomy dance track “Do the Dark,” keening torch song “Faces,” and the faithful, album-closing cover of “Follow Me,” originally found in the musical Camelot, and it’s almost understandable that the label was flummoxed by Autoamerican, certain there were no hits to be found on it. Almost.

For all the worries that the album’s freewheeling experimentalism would be a deterrence to fans, Autoamerican contains two of Blondie’s biggest songs, both finding them going far afield. The lead single, “The Tide is High,” is a cover of a nineteen-sixties reggae song by the Paragon. Blondie preserves the island rhythm and matches it with a bubbly, chilled-out disco groove. And “Rapture” features the band trying out a musical genre that was just emerging in their native New York. Against a steady, restless beat, Harry raps gamely and sweetly (“Fab Five Freddie told me everybody’s fly/ DJ’s spinnin’ are savin’ my mind”). Released as singles, both songs reached the top of the chart, representing Blondie’s third and fourth trips to that pinnacle.

The label heads weren’t the only ones who initially took a dim view of Autoamerican. The album was generally pummeled by the music press. Rolling Stone was especially savage, hitting the record with a rare one-star review that begins “Blondie’s Autoamerican is a terrible album, but it’s bad in such an arcane, high-toned way that listening to it is perversely fascinating.”

Record buyers might have seen that review. If so, they didn’t believe what they heard. In addition to the hit singles, Autoamerican was the third straight Blondie album to earn platinum certification.

423. Billy Joel, Glass Houses (1980)

Billy Joel decided his songbook was no longer entirely well-suited to the venues he found himself playing. After huge sales for his 1977 album, The Stranger (which was the biggest-selling title in the Columbia Records catalog until Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. handily eclipsed it), and its 1978 follow-up, 52nd Street, which picked up the Grammy for Album of the Year, Joel and his band were suddenly in arenas and stadiums, where the piano man’s pop songs, in his opinion, didn’t have quite enough oomph. Further inspired by the addition of lead guitarist David Brown to his backing band, Joel decided to make a real rock record.

Glass Houses opens with the sound of a window breaking and then a guitar line that could have been nicked directly from the Beatles’ Revolver. “You May Be Right” is Joel’s somewhat strained attempt at recounting a life of wild-man recklessness (“I’ve been stranded in the combat zone/ I walked through Bedford Stuy alone/ Even rode my motorcycle in the rain”). It’s hardly punk, but it does firmly establish that Joel is trying for something different than he’s done before. The amps-up vibe is furthered by the pulsing, panting “Sometimes a Fantasy,” the itchy, angsty “Sleeping with the Television On,” and “Close to the Borderline,” a sneering screed against the modern age (“I got remote control and a color TV/ I don’t change channels so they must change me”). The clearest statement is “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” which was often interpreted as a churlish revolt against new forms, but instead welcomed everything into the big tent of Joel’s preferred form: “Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk/ It’s still rock and roll to me.” It became Joel’s first single to top Billboard.

Whatever Joel’s aspirations, there was only so far he could stretch his musical instincts. No one is likely to mistake Glass Houses for Back in Black. Joel’s album has plenty of softer, pop-oriented fare that’s more typical of his work. “I Don’t Want to Be Alone” is middlebrow pop with a herky-jerky rhythm, and “Through the Long Night” is one of many Joel ballads that earnestly, eagerly apes the elegant craftsmanship of the Beatles. Maybe the most interesting outlier on the album is “All for Leyna,” a tale of lustful infatuation that forecasts the dabbling with new wave that Joel would employ on his next album, The Nylon Curtain.

Joel faced the usual aversion from critics, many of them taking special glee in assailing his rock-star posturing. Also in line with prior experience, all the pans didn’t dim Joel’s commercial prospects in the slightest. Glass Houses was Joel’s second straight studio effort to top the Billboard album chart. To date, it’s sold over seven million copies in the U.S.

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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