College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #419 to #417

419. Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual (1983)

Through the late nineteen-seventies and early nineteen-eighties, Cyndi Lauper faced a series of setbacks that reasonably should have made her decide that a prime place in the music business wasn’t meant to be for her. The Lauper-fronted band Blue Angel delivered a highly touted but dead-on-arrival debut album in 1980, and a subsequent break with their manager led to protracted litigation that forced Lauper to file for bankruptcy. Just as she sought to revive earlier discussions for a solo recording contract that were proffered while Lauper stayed loyal to her band, doctors found an inverted cyst on her vocal chord, requiring surgery and seriously jeopardizing her ability to make a living as a singer. After surgery and recovery, Lauper figured she had one last shot and put her career in the hands of David Wolff, who became her manager and, in short order, her romantic partner. Within weeks, Lauper was signed to an Epic Records subsidiary and assigned A&R man Rick Chertoff as a producer for her debut solo album.

After all her professional misfortune, Lauper was due for a turnaround. She’s So Unusual delivered that and then some. The first indication that Lauper’s persistence paid off was the reception given the album’s lead single, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Written by Robert Hazard, the cut was a glistening piece of pop, boosted beyond silly party anthem by the richness of Lauper’s vocals, which unearthed the poignancy in a lyric such as “I want to be the one to walk in the sun.” What could have easily been purely disposable instead took on the tinge of classic in its assured statement of personal freedom. Boosted further by a colorful, exuberant music video, the single climbed all the way to the runner-up position of the chart (blocked from the top spot by Van Halen’s “Jump.”) The album’s second single, the aching ballad “Time After Time” (co-written by Lauper and Rob Hyman, from the Hooters), did even better. It became Lauper’s first #1 single.

The remainder of She’s So Unusual is a fascinating hodgepodge, as if assembled in a scramble from artistic notions thrown onto a whiteboard during a brainstorming session. It encompasses a cover of the Brains’ furious power pop number “Money Changes Everything,” with Lauper belting the lyrics with a warble that echoes Rachel Sweet, and a celebration of female masturbation in the thumping “She Bop.” The brash “I’ll Kiss You” has lingering vestiges of the punk blasts heard in nineteen-seventies New York City, and “All Through the Night” is simpering yet effective balladeering that is emblematic of its songwriter, Jules Shear. Lauper sometimes stretches too far — a rendering of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” makes for an unfortunate mismatch — but she mostly acquits herself nicely no matter what variant she tries.

She’s So Unusual was a smash. A global hit with over six million copies moved in the U.S. alone, it assured Lauper an enduring place in the cultural firmament. Even when the pop charts proved less hospitable to her wares (Lauper registered ten Top 40 singles, but none after 1989), Lauper diversified. Her determined breadth included a stint writing songs for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, earning a Tony Award for her efforts. And she’s spent the last decade presiding over Home for the Holidays, an annual holiday charity show that raises funds for homeless LGBTQ+ youth.

418. Killing Joke, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns (1986)

In retrospect, the members of Killing Joke probably should have seen the label interference coming. Abrasive icons from their 1980 self-titled debut onward, the London-based band experienced a modest commercial breakthrough with their 1985 album, Night Time, which amassed enough sales to be certified single in the U.K. and yielded a Top 20 single on that nation’s charts with “Love Like Blood.” Not long after, Virgin Records showed up with a lucrative contract to distribute future efforts recorded on the band’s longtime label, E.G. Records, and Killing Joke set to work on Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, their sixth studio album. When they turned in the finished product, E.G. executives were concerned that it strayed too far from what had just brought in significant dollars. Without the band’s consent, the label gave the tracks to Julian Mendelsohn, fresh off work with the Pet Shop Boys. Charged with replicating “Love Like Blood” as much as possible, Mendelsohn remixed the material, and it’s his version that saw release, immediately earning the ire of longtime Killing Joke fans who dubbed it a sell-out record.

Brighter Than a Thousand Suns isn’t dreadful, but it has a mist of the generic about it, like it was created to make goth-soaked post-punk safe for the masses. The airy yearning of “Adorations” and gloomy glamor “Sanity” set the tone for the album, representing music that seems poised for continued tinkering depending on whether dance clubs, MTV, or radio programmers are being targeted with the next remix. There’s an agreeable glossy churn to “Rubicon,” and the buffed-up “Love of the Masses” could appeal to eyeliner-curious listeners primed for the dramatic by Simple Minds. Befitting its prog rock–friendly title “Twilight of the Mortal” is florid and exhausting, pushing its intricate contrivances to the point of bloat.

Killing Joke were reportedly unhappy with Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, but they still did their part to support the album. They made the requisite music videos and embarked on an ambitious tour. Afterward, there were signs of strain. And the road to the band’s next album proved to be especially bumpy, marked by conflicting perceptions of where Killing Joke should go next and how they should get there.

417. Devo, Oh, No! It’s Devo (1982)

According to Gerald Casale, who joined with Mark Mothersbaugh to form the creative core of Devo, the album Oh, No! It’s Devo had its origins in a petulant response to music critics. Casale noted that Rolling Stone had referred to Devo as fascists and another article from around the same time dubbed them clowns. He and Mothersbaugh decided to answer the question “What would a record sound like by fascist clowns?”

Greasepaint-lathered entertainers with a totalitarian bent evidently woudn’t think much of guitars. Oh, No! It’s Devo finds the art-rock almost entirely abandoning guitars to build their jagged soundscapes on synthesizer parts that overlap, interlock, and occasionally swing sonic swords at each other. The buzzy, burbling “Time Out for Fun” and the cheerily goofball “Peek-a-Boo!” are, befitting the album’s supposed inspiration, feats of cheeky regimentation. “Explosions” is so full of freakiness that the song itself seems to be taking big gulps. And “Speed Racer” is an appropriate mirror of the cartoon hero it namechecks: colorful, zingy, and very capable at roaring through hairpin curves.

If many of the songs can come across like quick jokes that were noodled into something more signifiant with studio toys, there are also plentiful instances where Devo formulates a possible future for pop. “That’s Good” is fiercely assured, and “Patterns” is sleek and complex as it revels in repeated structures (“Don’t bother asking why a pattern never cries/ Old patterns never die, they just go on and on”). “I Desire” takes pleading as seduction (“I desire/ Your attention”) and makes it into a computerized march of committed romantics.

The same critics who rejected previous Devo efforts also lined up to eagerly heap malice on Oh, No! It’s Devo. As Mothersbaugh explained at the time of the album’s release, its title was a preemptive acknowledge of the practiced dismay their detractors were sure to adopt. Their loss. As was often the case, Devo’s wack-job reinventions of pop are cause for celebration.

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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