College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #404 to #402

404. Howard Devoto, Jerky Versions of the Dream (1983)

After folding his band Magazine, Howard Devoto wasn’t sure what he’d do next. He started working on one project with guitarist Alan St. Clair and another with Barry Adamson, Magazine’s bassist. He also toyed with the idea of writing songs for others to sing, evidently planning to work with a female vocalist at some point. Devoto eventually came around to the most obvious solution, pulling together the different strands of creativity into a solo album. Two years after Magazine played their last notes, Devoto delivered Jerky Versions of the Dream.

The album has an airy intimacy that reflects its genesis. Although incorporating some of the emerging music and studio technology that gave a lot of nineteen-eighties music a distinctive sheen, and very clearly made with meticulous care, the material feels spare and immediate, as if it sprung to life fully formed and Devoto shared it immediately. “Cold Imagination” could be an early ancestor of twenty-first century bedroom pop, albeit a version of that is nervy rather than lush. “Rainy Season” forecasts the the crisp pop of the Mighty Lemon Drops and the Ocean Blue, and “Way Out of Shape” is essentially the song Julian Cope spent the first part of his career chasing after.

There’s a strong vein of oddness running through the album. “Waiting for a Train” circles around pop conventions of the moment with every properly landing on any of them, and “Taking Over Heaven” is like a Magazine song in hand to hand combat with art pop. Devoto was known to be frustrated that significant commercial success eluded Magazine, and he obviously had the skills to write more conventional, mainstream-friendly songs if he wanted to. Jerky Versions of the Dream feels like he’s flirting with the conventional but can’t quite bring himself to shave away his idiosyncrasies. It wound up his only solo album. He spent the next few years pursuing other collaborations, to steadily dwindling attention, before withdrawing entirely from the music business in the early nineteen-nineties. A decade passed before he recorded again.

403. King Crimson, Three of a Perfect Dream (1984)

The quartet of iconoclasts making up King Crimson in the middle of the nineteen-eighties — Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Robert Fripp, and Tony Levin — were starting to struggle with one another. The recording of their 1982 album, Beat, was a fraught affair, and they came to the follow-up uncertain about how to proceed. They addressed the conflicting notions about what type of music they should be making by essentially splitting the album in half. Side one of Three of a Perfect Dream was labeled “Left side” and included relatively conventional rock songs (or at least as conventional as King Crimson ever got), and the flip was dubbed “Right side” and featured wilder sonic excursions.

Belew’s sideline with Talking Heads exerted a clear influence on the songs he brought to the process. The title cut could have comfortably slipped into the Stop Making Sense set list, and “Sleepless” mixes rubbery funk with probing aural textures. As if conceding that there were limits to how approachable a King Crimson album was ever going to be, even the supposedly mainstream-friendly side closes with “Nuages (That Which Passes, Passes Like Clouds),” a spooky and ethereal instrumental. When the experimental instincts take over on the “Right side,” the material is challenging and enveloping. “Industry” has a restless rhythm and throbbing tones, and “No Warning” pushes the off-kilter sounds to the point of abrasion. The album closes with “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic (Part III),” a continuation of a song suite started eleven years earlier.

The discord between the band members is arguably felt on the record, with the musical components often at odds instead of operating cohesive. Because it’s King Crimson, that works. What could be a mess in other musicians’ hands takes on a crackling energy of unpredictability on Three of a Perfect Dream. But the conflict outside of the grooves reached a breaking point. For at least the second time, Fripp decided to dissolve the band. According to Belew, Fripp didn’t bother to tell his cohorts. Instead, Belew said he found out he was no longer in King Crimson when he read about Fripp’s decision in Musician magazine.

402. Billy Bragg, Workers Playtime (1988)

On “Little Time Bomb,” Billy Bragg sings of a couple characters who are “off down the boozer” where the male in the duo is prepared “To drink a toast/ To the one that he hates most.” Whether Bragg did his own tippling to nurse the broken heart he carried at the time, he offered the equivalent of a ruefully raised glass with the album Workers Playtime.

The fourth full-length studio effort by the protest singer from Barking, Essex, Workers Playtime was a significant departure. Although hardly single-minded in his creativity, Bragg was unquestionably best known for his bounding folk songs that espoused lefty politics; just a few months before delivering Workers Playtime, he released the EP Help Save the Youth of America, with rousing calls to unionize and condemnations of U.S. incursions in other countries. Similar concerns get an airing on the album — and the cover art includes the sentiment “CAPITALISM IS KILLING MUSIC” — but most of the material charts the woes of a broken relationship. It’s practically a concept album about romantic grief.

Clearly motivated by his own need for catharsis, Bragg levels his formidable songwriting skill at the lover who crossed his stars. Understandably, the ballads on the album are infused with ache. “Must I Paint You a Picture?” is an anguished plea tinted by the drastic unlikelihood of reconciliation (“I dreamt the world stopped turning as we climbed the hill/ I dreamt impossible dreams that we were lovers still”), “Valentine’s Day is Over” tells it sad story in the title, and “The Only One” is a somber study in futility. When Bragg picks up the tempo, the words still smart. “She’s Got a New Spell” recounts the discombobulation felt when a relationship is spinning out of control, and “Life with the Lions” is downright jaunty in its pained self-assessment (“I know when I leave the room/ They say what’s up with him/ But love is not a game you play to win girl/ Love is not a game you play to win.”

As if announcing that the string of songs that make up the bulk of Workers Playtime allowed Bragg to work through his wounded feeling and move on, the album ends with “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” which is everything he does best packed into four and a half minutes. With a lovely modesty rendered as gentle self-mockery (“Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is/ I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses”), Bragg offers a tuneful worldview in singalong sloganeering (“Well, here comes the future and you can’t run from it/ If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it”). His spirit seems to strengthen with every verse, and as the song and album gradually fades to silence, the revival is complete.

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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