College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #386 to #384

386. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Junk Culture (1984)

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were told they had overreached. The band’s fourth studio album, Dazzle Ships, was an attempt to stretch their creativity, creating challenging soundscapes that tried to bend pop to point in daring new directions. The album was treated unkindly by critics, many of them seemingly eager to see the group stumble, and fans didn’t warm to it either. Though the album reached a U.K. chart peak comparable to its two most recent predecessors, both deemed hits, the singles stalled on the charts. Though initially excited about their boundary pushing, seeing it as almost a mission, Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey, the principals of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, took the tepid response as a particularly tough job review. For their next album, they decided to give the people what they wanted.

Junk Culture wasn’t quite a full retreat to the band’s earlier style. Right from the beginning, the experimental, exploratory instrumental title cut, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark makes a statement that they’re still ready to zig and zag within their shiny synth pop. But they’re also clearly committed to reasserting their mastery of the sort of singles that regularly raced to the top of British charts. The bright, strident “Tesla Girls” and clockwork construction “Talking Loud and Clear”are build for the naysayers who mistook deviation from the model as a sign that a knack had been lost. “Never Turn Away” is a rapturous ballad enlivened by cascading synth lines, and “Hard Day” is lithe, lovely in offering its solemn report on living a wearying life (“And when I walk/ I walk the walk of a tired man”).

At time, Humphreys and McCluskey almost seem to be toying with the listener, bringing the material right up to the edge of pure pandering without actually shucking off their artistic integrity. In particular, “Locomotion” and “All Wrapped Up” incorporate steel-drum rhythms that can be heard as a cheeky jab at the appropriation of island music that kept certain bands circling through record shops and local clubs. And the inclusion of the romping, orchestrally adventurous track “(The Angels Keep Turning) The Wheels of the Universe”as a seven-inch single packaged with early pressings of Junk Culture is a suggestion of the album that could have been had the fans allowed more latitude for the band.

Junk Culture worked as intended. It put Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark back in favor with those who were starting to turn away. When it came to selling records, the group had learned what did and didn’t. The possibility of yet greater success was right in front of them.

385. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Blood & Chocolate (1986)

A little more than six months after the release of King of America, a studio album featuring highly complicated attribution that was interpreted as a decisive step into a new creative identity, Elvis Costello was back in more familiar territory. Blood & Chocolate reunited Costello with producer Nick Lowe, who had the same role on Costello’s first five albums but had been absent since, and once again gave backing band the Attractions official billing. After couple of years when Costello declared the end of his band, intentions to retire, and scrambled around with odd side projects, Blood & Chocolate was seen as an attempt to return to the blazing, literate rock material that Costello did best, maybe better than anyone.

The first side of the album makes a compelling case for putting Costello back in familiar creative confines. It’s a string of thrilling winners, such as the roiling thunder of “Uncomplicated,” the slyly scathing “I Hope You’re Happy Now” (“He’s got all the things you need and some that you will never/ But you make him sound like frozen food, his love will last forever”), and the melancholy “Home is Anywhere You Hang Your Head.” The side is dominated by two long cuts, concertos of bleak brilliance. “Tokyo Storm Warning” takes a world tour as it offers reportage of casual emotional pummeling (“How you loved him ’till you hated him and made him cry for mercy”), and “I Want You”is a Dylanesque ramble across a toxically obsessive romance (“I want you, did you mean to tell me but seem to forget?/ I want you, since when were you so generous and inarticulate?”), the storytelling made all the more bruising by the songs’s slow, steady pace.

Costello’s focus wavers on the second side, as if the animosity between him and the band led to a haphazard pass through undercooked offerings in the name of making a quick exit from one another’s company. Some of it still works — the retro snarl “Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” and the agreeably clunky ride of “Crimes of Paris” — but the album slips into the realm of the forgettable. At least album closer “Next Time Round” shows strong evidence of Lowe’s touch.

Indications that Blood & Chocolate meant to reset Costello’s work with the Attractions as an ongoing concern proved inaccurate. After the album came out, Costello announced anew that he was planning to split from his longtime cohorts. This time, the break stuck. Almost a decade passed before Costello went back into the studio with the Attractions. Blood & Chocolate also brought about another ending. Costello wrapped his contract with Columbia Records, his North American label since the start, and decided to shop around for a new business home, eventually signing with Warner Bros. Records.

384. Big Audio Dynamite, No. 10, Upping St. (1986)

“I did him wrong,” Joe Strummer said of his old bandmate Mick Jones in a mid-nineteen-eighties interview with NME. “I stabbed him in the back. Really, it’s through his good grace we got back together, and we’re going to write together in the future.”

The unlikely reunion between one-half of the Clash, a few years after Summer unceremoniously fired Jones from the band, occurred as Jones was prepping the second Big Audio Dynamite album. Strummer took on the role of eager collaborator, co-producing the album and co-writing more than half of its tracks. Anyone straining to hear echoes of the Clash on the resulting album, No. 10, Upping St., are likely to be disappointed. Perhaps conscious of the ill will that he took responsibility for, Strummer didn’t press his musical personality too strenuously. Although he wanted to help bring some roughness to Big Audio Dynamite’s sound, Strummer reported that he often reminded himself to pull back and tell Jones, “It’s your album, man.” Arguably the clearest fingerprints from Strummer are cuts — such as “Beyond the Pale” and “Sightsee M.C.!” — the occasional currents of new-wave Western score that he was tinkering with at about the same time for the soundtrack of Alex Cox’s Walker.

Big Audio Dynamite’s unique amalgamation of dance, hip hop, and reggae — with the weightiness of rock to provide ballast — is best heard on the single and lead track “C’mon Every Beatbox.” Nothing else on the album approaches the same level of cheerful invention. “V. Thirteen” is a prime example: It contains the multitude of elements Big Audio Dynamite brings to their music, but stays stubbornly in one gear. “Sambadrome” is so easygoing that is winds up wispy and directionless, and “Ticket” sounds like the Tom Tom Club with the hippie-hangover dreaminess removed and couple jabbery rap breaks plopped in to compensate. “Dial a Hitman” adds buzzy business around the fringes, but it’s not enough to cause the tracks to break loose from its low drone.

Speculation abounded, then and even now, that Jones and Strummer were testing the footing for a Clash reunion. Of course, that eventuality never came to pass. After No. 10, Upping St., Jones redoubled his commitment to Big Audio Dynamite, leading to string of successful albums, and Strummer moved on to other opportunities, including solo work and a brief stint as a member of the Pogues. The two reunited on stage in 2002, playing a couple Clash songs in what was widely viewed as a test run for a proper Clash reunion a few months later upon the band’s induction into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It didn’t come to pass. One month later, Strummer died unexpectedly. The cause was an undiagnosed heart defect. He was fifty 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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