College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #401 to #399

401. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Rattlesnakes (1984)

In the midst of his eventually abandoned studies at Glasgow University, Lloyd Cole formed the band that bore his name. According to him, the original intent of Lloyd Cole and the Emotions was to play new-fangled white soul music, something like what the Style Council was doing at the time. The plan changed when Cole started writing songs and found that his natural inclinations ran in a different direction. When he polished off “Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?,” a practically perfect ode to romanticized discontentment, it was clear that we going to a fairly straightforward rock band, albeit one with a bon-vivant panache.

Rattlesnakes, the debut album from Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, is a blast of rollicking, of-the-moment, precocious posturing. Cole was a cultural sponge, soaking up influences that infused his songs. “Perfect Skin” was a deliberate pastiche of Bob Dylan, and “Speedboat” delivers a slinky groove while offering a hat tip to a 1976 Renata Adler novel. The references as clear and direct as footnotes in a cultural survey, as when Cole croons against the strident pop twang of the title cut: “She never finds no trouble, she tries too hard/ She’s obvious despite herself/ She looks like Eve Marie Saint in On The Waterfront.” Like a dude eagerly aspiring to transferred coolness, Cole is eager to share all the cultural artifacts that shaped him and clung to his mind like barnacles.

The implicit proclamation of indie cred would be annoying if Cole didn’t legitimately have the goods as a creator and a performer. What could occasionally come across as calculated affectation on later records is sharp and engaged on Rattlesnakes. “Four Flights Up” is spirited pop, “Charlotte Street” is like a warmer version of the Smiths, and “Forest Fire” suggests a version of the Jazz Butcher with the weirdness steamed out. Cole is immediately in fine company, and a certain take-it-or-leave-it quality of mild disaffection enhances the idea that he arrives fully formed and deeply genuine.

Released on Polydor, Rattlesnakes was a hit in the U.K., and Geffen Records snapped it up for distribution in North America. If they initially figured the appeal would translate, there was enough wavering of confidence that the label execs decided several songs needed remixing. To polish the tracks up, they recruited Ric Ocasek, whose band the Cars was then enjoying enormous success with the album Heartbreak City. The added sheen couldn’t trick anyone into thinking Cole’s sly esoterica was the next “You Might Think.” Apart from college radio, Rattlesnakes barely registered in the U.S. and the artist was quickly shunted off to the category of under-appreciated musical cult heroes.

400. Beastie Boys, Licensed to Ill (1986)

Michael Diamond, Adam Yauch, and Adam Horovitz came together as a trio in the early nineteen-eighties, playing slapdash punk music as an extension of the band the Young Aborigines. Their creative focus took a shift with the 1983 single “Cooky Puss,” which is essentially a Jerky Boys phone call plopped unceremoniously atop a funky, hip-hop beat. In their corner of New York City’s music scene, the song was a hit, and the group, now dubbed the Beastie Boys, incorporated more rap and hip hip elements into their shows, including the addition of a DJ. To work the tables, the Beasties Boys hired Rick Rubin, an area college student who also had a sideline of running a small, independent record label out of his dorm room.

Just a couple years later, Rubin’s label, Def Jam Records was a very big deal. On the basis of a few robust-selling singles — including the Beastie Boys’ “Rock Hard” — Rubin signed a distribution deal with CBS Records. His personal reputation was given a boost when he coproduced Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, released in the late spring of 1986, therefore signing his name to the first hip hop record that could truly be called a smash hit. It a cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” — with the Boston hard rockers pitching in — that really knocked the walls down, making hip hop safe for the masses by coupling it to the very familiar jackhammer of rock ‘n’ roll.

Six weeks after “Walk This Way” hit its Billboard Hot 100 peak, the Beastie Boys’ debut album, Licensed to Ill, crashed through the entryway to stardom skillfully hammered into being by Run-D.M.C. If “Walk This Way” made hip hop palatable for the dopey suburban boys who diverted every nickel of their disposable income to buying records, then Licensed to Ill turned hip hop into McDonald’s french fries. It was classic rock radio with braying, sophomoric boasts, as on the Led Zeppelin thunder-stealer “Rhymin & Stealin” and “Slow Ride,” which repurposed War’s “Low Rider” riff to a tale of low-level reprobate behavior (“Because being bad news is what we’re all about/ We went to White Castle and we got thrown out”). “No Sleep till Brooklyn” is band biography as chunky, grinding hard rock. Running below empty.

If it’s a deliberately, proudly immature record, there’s no denying that License to Ill also holds the early inklings of the genuine innovation to come. “She’s Crafty” has a heavy debt to Run-D.M.C., but it still thumps, and its embedded misogyny is tempered by the fact that the woman in question does genuinely outwit the moronic, easily deluded boys. “Paul Revere” boasts strong rap storytelling, and “Brass Monkey” and “Time to Get Ill” are agreeably dopey party music. If “Girls” is so chauvinistic that its now emblematic of every poor choice the Beastie Boys made in their long, early era of hollow-headed, bratty brashness (“I hope she’ll say/ Hey, me and you should hit the hay/ I asked her out, she said, no way/ I should of probably guessed they’re gay”), it’s pretty hard to deny that the damn thing is catchy as all get out. There’s a reason GoldieBlox blatantly swiped it for a commercial almost three decades later, courting legal disaster.

The big hit from Licensed to Ill is, of course, “Fight for Your Right.” Rarely has an act’s strengths and shortcomings, brilliance and idiocy been so thoroughly encapsulated in one song. Basically swiping the teen misery in the face of adult authority from Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized,” and then applying a dose of lunkhead rebellion, the song clearly spoke to whiny white dudes across the nation who invented personal injustices to justify their hormonal rages and discontentment over every minor instance of thwarted entitlement. Public Enemy, also signed to Def Jam, were mere months away from beginning their long, angry reporting on the compromises endured by Black citizens, while the Beastie Boys spoke the hard truth of young, white America: “Your pop caught you smoking, and he said, ‘No way!’/ That hypocrite smokes two packs a day/ Man, living at home is such a drag/ Now your mom threw away your best porno mag.” It takes a nation of millions to make them feel incorrectly that they’re being held back.

399. Close Lobsters, Foxheads Stalk This Land (1987)

Plunking guitar lines and a rat-a-tat drum beat percolate across “Just Too Bloody Stupid,” the lead track on Foxheads Stalk This Land, and it seems as if pop music itself is raring to explode into something newer and cleverer than its ever been before. The debut album from Scottish band Close Lobsters is filled with tracks like that, offering a shining tunefulness and slyly withering wit, all contained in a tidy little package. Few acts were as relaxed in their glum appraisals as Close Lobsters. On “A Prophecy” lead singer Andrew Burnett coos the lyrics “And you don’t know where you’re going/ It’s not surprising since you don’t know where to go” like the most uninvolved putdown ever issued.

The cut “Foxheads” has some of the jangly verve of the Go-Betweens, but, as easy at is to pinpoint the area and era that Foxheads Stalk This Lands was created in, Close Lobsters mostly sound like their own unique entity, drawing on the sounds around them to conjure up novel material. “I Kiss the Flower in Bloom” is sweetly drifty with a touch of twang, and “Pathetique” is somehow thick and juicy. Most of the songs are compact, giving extra heft to album closer “Mother of God,” which sprawls to nearly eight minutes, building and building to a luxuriant cyclone of exhilirating pop majesty.

Close Lobsters were one of the first bands signed to Fire Records, and they echo in many of the more commercially successful acts that followed them, notably Pulp and Blue Aeroplanes. The band tried their level best to find a wider audience, including the release of the near-perfect EP What is There to Smile About the year after their debut. It was to no avail. After one more full-length album, 1989’s Headache Rhetoric, Close Lobsters disbanded. All that was left was the inevitable reunion decades later.

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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