College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #422 to #420

422. Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Live Rust (1979)

Lest anyone doubt Neil Young’s entrepreneurial spirit, he is one of the few artists who opted to make a live album to document the tour mounted in support of a live album. Released about five months after Rust Never Sleeps, a live album with some studio overdubbing to bolster the largely new songs, the double album Live Rust is a more traditional example of a recorded-in-concert effort, spanning a wider range of the artist’s career. As if to signal to less adventurous listeners on are safer group, Live Rust opens with the gentle, crowd-pleasing combo of “Sugar Mountain” and “I am a Child,” two songs that dated to the nineteen-sixties and able to remind fans of their happy satisfaction when they flipped from side one to side two of Decade.

As he was wont to do, Young starts off lean and spare and ramps up the volume and intensity. This is an album with Crazy Horse, after all. And while there are plenty of cuts that are similarly dialed back — such as a rendition “After the Gold Rush” so lovely and fragile that it can induce chills — Young and his cohorts spend most of Live Rust rattling the rafters. When he’s ready to turn it up, Young lets the audience know. “When I get paid, I’m gonna get an electric guitar,” Young jokes. “When I get real big.”

“The Loner” is raw and rough, and “Tonight’s the Night” is muscular and intricate. There’s an appropriate roiling intensity to “Like a Hurricane,” and “Cortez the Killer” sprawls to suit the saga of its lyrics. Live Rust falters when it starts to feel obligatory, as when Young and the band take a pass at “Lotta Love,” from the 1978 album Comes a Time and recently taken into the Top 10 by Nicolette Larson. Even Young knows the song is an ill fit, calling out “Let’s play some rock ‘n’ roll” afterward. The pogoing energy of “Sedan Delivery,” the next song, definitely suits his battle cry.

Live Rust was a solid performer for Young, peaking at #15 on the Billboard album chart, commercial heights he wouldn’t reach again until a decade and a half later. Live Rust essentially capped Young’s most popular stretch as a performer. After that, Young did what he’d always done, following his own instincts his own way with little regard for the marketplace. As the nineteen-eighties dawned, the marketplace grew less amenable to those instincts.

421. Erasure, The Innocents (1988)

“I think everything is a bit disillusioning at the moment,” Andy Bell said at around the time of the release of The Innocents, the third album from his band Erasure. “It’s really hard to keep your feet on the ground.”

Bell and his partner in Erasure, Vince Clarke, might have been reacting to political and social turns that they found upsetting, but the music they made was downright exuberant. Tapping into the slick songcraft of classic R&B and applying it to modern dance music, Bell and Clarke expand on their sound they established when they started collaborating in the mid-nineteen-eighties and swirl up tracks that glow with energy. Lead track “A Little Respect” sets the standard: vibrant, soaring, a tanged with a bittersweet sentiment (“And if I should falter/ Would you open you arms out to me/ We can make love not war/ And live at peace with our hearts”). I don’t know if it’s accurate to call it irresistible, but I also can’t figure out why anyone would want to resist it.

“Ship of Fools” moves with a low prowl that exudes drama, and “Chains of Love” interlocks hooks like a puzzle box with a beat. Coproduced with Dave Jacob and British pop maestro Stephen Hague, the album is awash in the electronic orchestrations endemic to albums of the era, but somehow transcends the more dated elements. The near-instrumental “Sixty-Five Thousand” piles in complex studio elements, making the case for the restless sonic tinkering. When it seems like Erasure has pinballed into every corner of the game board, up bounds “Yahoo!,” which is implausibly great in unleashing what is best described as fabulous disco gospel (“When you look around and find yourself/ Between the devil and deep blue sea/ I pray to the lord on high to set you free”).

In every sense, The Innocents was a breakthrough. At home in the U.K., the album was a sensation, roaring to the top of the chart (the first of four straight #1 albums for the band) and registering enough sales for a double-platinum certification. Two of its singles — “Chains of Love” and “A Little Respect” — made it into the Top 40 in the U.S. Although Erasure was hardly obscure before it, The Innocents cemented them as a formidable pop force.

420. John Lennon/Yoko Ono, Double Fantasy (1980)

The last song on Double Fantasy is called “Hard Times Are Over.” Exactly three weeks after John Lennon and Yoko Ono released the album, Lennon was shot to death as he entered his New York City home. A few hours earlier, he autographed a copy of that album for his soon-to-be assailant.

Double Fantasy loomed large even before the sudden, tragic shock of Lennon’s demise made it effectively his final creative statement (or so it seemed until Ono pulled together some stray material into Milk and Honey a few years later). The former Beatle hadn’t put out an album for five years, as it had been yet a bit longer since he released a proper collaboration with Ono. After retreating into domesticity for several years, Lennon was ready to put his creative voice forward again. Fittingly, the album opens with “(Just Like) Starting Over,” a lilting love ode with a title that implies reintroduction.

For his part, Lennon is interested in autobiography. His songs on Double Fantasy are largely testimonials to family life, whether the lullaby to son Sean on “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” or the awestruck and abject paean to Ono on “Woman” (“Woman, I know you understand/ The little child inside the man/ Please remember my life is in your hands”). Lennon addresses his own layoff from performing on “Watching the Wheels,” an easygoing celebration of contemplative idleness.

Lennon isn’t the only author of Double Fantasy. Ono’s presence is more than the billing. For much of the album, Ono and Lennon alternate tracks. They sometimes comment directly on one another’s songs, most notably with “I’m Losing You” and “I’m Moving On,” both built atop the same grinding, bluesy riff. Lennon’s songs are consistently enjoyable. Ono’s are more daring, and therefore more interesting. There’s a caustic quality to “Kiss Kiss Kiss” of the sort that regularly earned her lazy ridicule, and there cawing noises peppered in on “Give Me Something” admittedly come close to self-parody. But it’s also her signature on the Harry Nilsson–like “Yes, I’m Your Angel” and the sauntering, disco-tinged “Every Man Has a Woman Who Loves Him.” More than her widely celebrated husband, Ono is still inventing on Double Fantasy.

The tragedy of Lennon’s death is still staggering four decades later. His most famed songwriting partner, Paul McCartney, is on the verge of releasing a new solo album, at the age of seventy-eight, and there’s every reason to believe that Lennon would have been an ongoing creative force of comparable productivity had his life not been cut short by a damaged man with a gun. When Lennon died, he was only forty years old.

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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