College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #392 to #390

392. R.E.M., Chronic Town (1982)

As the nineteen-eighties dawned, R.E.M. couldn’t get a foothold like their fellow acts in Athens, Georgia. Driven in part by the breakout success the B-52’s enjoyed with their 1979 self-titled debut, there was keen interest in the scene that kept clubs rattling in that Southern college town. Even so, the avenues that other bands were following were either frustrating or completely closed off for R.E.M. They drew little interest from DB Records, the local label that released material from the likes of Love Tractor and Pylon, and found the process of recording in area studios so frustrating that initial attempts at demos were scrapped. They finally managed to lay down a single by traveling a couple hundred miles north to a makeshift studio Mitch Easter assembled in his parents’ garage in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Radio Free Europe,” backed with “Sitting Still,” was issued by the dinky Atlanta label Hib-Tone, in 1981. R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck was so angry about what he perceived to be the shoddy quality of the pressing that he smashed the single and affixed the shards to his wall.

If the individual members of R.E.M. were entirely happy about the record they made, they enjoyed the collaborator they made it with. As they trekked around the East Coast, including several trips to New York City for gigs of increasing prominence, R.E.M. kept circling back to Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studios. Responding to hometown chatter that lamented that the studio recordings of favorite local acts failed to capture the kineticism of their live shows, R.E.M. strove for loose, energetic performances with Easter, expanding the possibilities of what they could achieve when putting songs on tape. R.E.M. finally landed a proper record deal with Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. Records, an upstart independent that struck paydirt almost immediately with Beauty and the Beat, the debut album from the Go-Go’s. Five cuts from R.E.M.’s recurring sessions at Drive-In Studios were assembled into an EP, dubbed Chronic Town.

The EP is close to an ideal launch for R.E.M., effectively introducing a band fully formed in their collective ingenuity and idiosyncrasy. “Gardening at Night” is buoyant with the joyful jangle that largely defined the band throughout the eighties, and “Wolves, Lower” is like a sleeping limb’s tingle made into melody. The emotive mumble of lead singer Michael Stipe, the cause of curiosity and frustration in the early years, adds mysterious complexity to “Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars).” Even when the songs are not all that different from what R.E.M.’s fellow low-budget bands were crafting at the time — “1,000,000” and “Stumble”— there’s an underlying verve that is like a secret promise of revolutions to come.

Chronic Town was arguably the starting pistol for college radio’s development into its own unique corner of the musical culture, rather than as a slightly more daring version of album rock radio. In her book Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, author and history professor Grace Elizabeth Hale offers a compelling theory as to why R.E.M.’s music thoroughly captivated student broadcasters: “As some critics understood, Chronic Town‘s five songs did something quite distinct in underground music in that moment. They made listeners work to make their own meaning, and they suggested that interpretation always hinged on perspective. For nerdy, college-student fans in particular, R.E.M.’s songs translated the new postmodern theory they read in their classes into sonic form.”

391. Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (1980)

When Peter Gabriel brought his third solo album to his North American label, the reaction was not what he expected. He’d been on the Atlantic Records roster since his days as the frontman with Genesis, and the relationship continued across his first two outings on his own. Neither of those records were smashed, but they performed well enough. But Atlantic Records chief Ahmet Ertegun disparaged the album’s political commentary, specifically citing the plaintive, affecting ballad “Biko,” a tribute to murdered South African activist Stephen Biko. Gabriel’s A&R rep with the label went so far as to advocate dropping the esoteric performer on the basis of the material. Gabriel considered the album an artistic breakthrough and later noted that the rejection was crushing. He shopped it around and found a taker in Mercury Records, which released it in the U.S. Like all of Gabriel’s early solo releases, the album is officially self-titled, but the disturbing, marred portrait on the front earned the record the distinguishing nickname Melt.

In the debate between towering music industry figures, Gabriel was right and Ertegun was wrong. Well, Ertegun’s irritated certainty about the album’s broad commercial appeal might now have been wrong exactly. Peter Gabriel is filled with strange, prickly inversions of familiar rock and pop constructions. In particular, Gabriel pushed his drummers — Phil Collins and Jerry Marotta — to refrain from using cymbals, leading to a wholesale reinvention of rock rhythm. The stark, exploratory “Intruder” and intense “No Self Control” are electrified by that wild invention. There’s a sense that song can skitter off in any direction at any time. The approach inserts a tone of added danger to the single “Games Without Frontiers,” a seething condemnation of geopolitical jockeying that was the first song to get Gabriel within Hail-Mary-pass distance of the Billboard Top 40.

Always a restless experimenter, tries out warped new wave on “I Don’t Remember” and crafts a track of fragile loveliness, and spooky oddity, with “Lead a Normal Life.” If the album doesn’t feel loaded with hits, its ambition is consistently thrilling. Eventually, even some of the Atlantic Records honchos realized it, too. Notably, John Kalodner, the A&R man who first suggestion the album was ground for termination, completely changed his mind. Having moved on to the brand new label Geffen Records, Kalodner enthusiastically stumped for bringing Gabriel onboard. Gabriel become of the first artists to sign with Geffen, and the label released the album that caused the initial dust-up after Mercury’s rights lapsed. A few years later, Geffen’s investment in Gabriel paid off when it turned out he had some major hits in him after all.

390. The Jam, All Mod Cons (1978)

“Writing and recording All Mod Cons was like stepping through a new door into a new world,” drummer Rick Buckler later assessed. “It was like we’d discovered something new about ourselves and it was a turning point for the Jam. Things seemed to come together for us with this album.”

That coming together was partially a result of the added pressure on Paul Weller, the Jam’s frontman and chief songwriter, to address perceived shortcomings of the band’s previous album, This is the Modern World, released in 1977. The band’s label, Polydor, initially tried to help the process by sending Weller and the band to a remote locale in the countryside to work on songs, but the distance from the city’s bustle left Weller bored and ravaged by writer’s block. Weller instead returned to his hometown, Woking, and considered the workaday lives of the residents there. Those observations inspired a pivot to sardonic storytelling about Brits living lives that appearance mundane on the surface, but were bristling underneath with the unique tension that comes from enduring a string of thwarted promises. For his model, Weller looked to Ray Davies, the patron saint of this particular songwriting form.

Weller’s debt to Davies on the album All Mods Con is acknowledged directly by including a cover of the Kinks’ “David Watts,” with bassist Bruce Foxton on lead vocals, on the album. The garage-rock buzz of “The Place I Love” and the nineteen-sixties lovelorn pop of “It’s Too Bad” are originals that could have fit nicely on any number of Kinks albums from one decade earlier. If the album were mere pastiche, it would grow tiresome. Luckily, Weller and his bandmates were still strong individualists, unlikely to settle for operating in a continual copycat mode. Even the album’s title was a rebuke of being hemmed in, mocking the mod rock scene that the Jam helped define and into which they were often pigeonholed.

The Jam’s committed to restless reinvention gives the album astonishing range, from the hit-and-run, punk-fired title cut to the lithe folk ballad “English Rose,” made yet more idyllic by the inclusion of crashing-wave sound effects. “In the Crowd” is colored with intoxicating psychedelic burbles, and “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have A Nice Time)” displays easygoing toughness, impeccable craft, and an instinct for satire that makes plain a kinship with Nick Lowe, whose debut solo album arrived the same year. As if providing the railcar coupler to the musical triumphs to come, the last track on the album is the clearest example at the peak of their emerging powers. “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” Originally marked by Weller for exclusion from the album, the song is propulsive, hook-laden, and spectacularly headlong in its energy, and the wry lyrics are filled with precise, perfect details (“I first felt a fist, and then a kick/ I could now smell their breath/ They smelt of pubs, and wormwood scrubs/ And too many right wing meetings”).

As their label and fans had hoped, the Jam had found their way. All Mod Cons was a great album. And it made it abundantly clear that more greatness was ahead.

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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