College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #383 to #381

383. The Style Council, Internationalists (1985)

The Style Council scored a major hit with their sophomore studio album, Our Favourite Shop. The LP debuted atop the U.K. album chart, and three of its singles made it into the Top 40. Presumably, the band’s U.S. label, Geffen Records, hoped for similar results on the other side of the Atlantic. The consensus was that the album needed slight reworking to ensure North American audiences would be receptive. The very British title was dropped in favor of Internationalists, providing a veneer of cosmopolitan chic, and the cover art, originally a photo of band members Paul Weller and Mick Talbot browsing in a haberdasher, was replaced by a black-and-white portrait shot that made the duo appear generically new wave. The look of the album seems a deliberate attempt to evoke Songs from the Big Chair, the Tears for Fears album that turned into a surprise hit at about that time. Weller was already a revered pop craftsman at home in the U.K. Everything about Internationalists suggest a concerted effort to elevate him to a similar status in the U.S.

Internationalists is filled with icy cool pop that incorporates little elements of familiar styles without ever fully locking into a settled groove. “Homebreakers” bursts with neo-soul, “The Lodgers (Or She Was Only a Shopkeeper’s Daughter)” has a spectrally waft of fusion jazz, and horn-stung “Walls Come Tumbling Down” is adjacent to the dance music of the moment. This put the Style Council is rough alignment with many of their peers: “Down in the Seine” is reminiscent of Joe Jackson, albeit with the faintest dash of French-pop cliches, and “Luck” unfortunately suggests the iffy choices of mid–nineteen-eighties Squeeze. Because Weller was one of the captains at the helm, the lyrics often stray from the usual lovelorn fare of such pop songs. “Come to Milton Keynes” might be the slickest song to hurl poison darts at the conservative politics that were devastating working-class towns in England (“Our nice new town where the curtains are drawn/ Where hope is started and dreams can be borne/ Let us share our insanity/ Go mad together in community”).

There’s an impish bending of pop norms across the album, as when the funky “The Stand Up Comic’s Instructions” plops in Lenny Henry with a gravel-voiced assist in satirizing hack comedians trading on bigotry (“Do the one that always works/ ‘Bout the lazy blacks that don’t like work/ And once you got ’em, keep ’em there/ Raise their spirits! Raise their cheer!”). Just as often, though, the material is polished to a painful gleam. “Boy Who Cried Wolf” comes worrisomely close to the hermetically sealed sonic stylings of Steely Dan, and “Shout to the Top” has a gooey plainness that made it an all too logical addition to the Vision Quest soundtrack where it sat just fine amidst the likes of Journey and Madonna.

The Internationalists didn’t break the Style Council in the U.S. In fact, the album significantly underperformed its predecessor, called My Ever Changing Moods in the U.S. to capitalize on the hit single of the same name. The Style Council were big at home, but other markets were proving tougher to crack.

382. U2, Rattle and Hum (1988)

It had been years since a concert film had a major presence at the U.S. box office. Presumably, Paramount Pictures thought U2 was just the band to turn that trend around. The release of The Joshua Tree, in the spring of 1987, rocketed the Irish quartet to a preeminent place in the music scene. Though there were plenty of contenders at the time, U2 suddenly could be plausibly considered the biggest rock band in the world. Whatever misgivings the band and their manager, Paul McGuinness, might have had regarding the introduction of movie cameras into the mix, capturing the act both on stage and in candid moments, was countered by the belief that a concert film could be the only way to meet the sky-high demand U2 now faced. Phil Joanou was hired to direct the film, and he assembled a forty-person film crew that joined U2 on the second leg of the massive U.S. tour in support of The Joshua Tree.

With a film comes a soundtrack album, and U2 decided they would create something of a hybrid. For the film and double album, both dubbed Rattle and Hum, U2 opted for a mix of live music and new, studio-recorded material. With a touch of pretension that’s practically the fifth member of the band, U2 positioned the project as their attempt to discover and understand the legacy of U.S. music. They recorded at Memphis’s famed, historic Sun Studios, offered a tribute to Billie Holiday with “Angel of Harlem,” and brought in living legends Bob Dylan and B.B. King for adoring collaborations (“Love Rescue Me” and “When Loves to Town,” respectively). The album swerves between old and new, adamantly rejecting the notion that U2 should fill the four sides with stadium performances of Joshua Tree favorites; only “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” make the cut, the latter mainly to highlight a guest appearance by the New Voices of Freedom.

The wandering focus of Rattle and Hum makes it comes across as the rough equivalent of a collection of B-sides and outtakes, albeit one with impressive peaks. The lead single, “Desire,” was derided by some of the purists at the time, but it pop juiciness forecasts the coming artistic triumph of Achtung Baby, and “All I Want is You” might be the best ballad U2 ever recorded. The album captures a band clearly enlivened by the opportunities that come with selling truckloads of records.

As an album, Rattle and Hum was a smashing success, logging six weeks on top of the Billboard chart, a run topped only by Joshua Tree in the U2 catalog. The film didn’t fare quite as well. It debuted in the runner-up position on the weekly box office chart, trailing the opening weekend of John Carpenter’s They Live. The next week it’s take dropped more than fifty percent, a commonplace attrition these days but the sign of a true flop back then. Rock stardom and movie stardom were two very different things.

381. The Blasters, Hard Line (1985)

“When you’re playin’ this kind of music, and you’re dealin’ with three chords and tryin’ to make those three chords mean what they always meant, each song has to really thought out if it’s going to compete with Chuck Berry on any sort of level,” Dave Alvin told Spin around the time his band the Blasters released their fourth full-length, Hard Line. “It’s gotta be concise and energetic. I think the most important thing for all the roots rockers to remember is that you have to make this in the tradition of its time.”

Even as the Blasters adhered to tradition, they actively sought to transcend their status as a critically lauded cult favorite and actually land a couple hits (which, come to think of it, is part of the tradition, too). There are choices on Hard Line clearly meant to position the act for commercial success. The excised the usual horn parts for a leaner, more direct sound, and accepted the assistance of noted fan John Mellencamp, then at the peak of his mainstream appeal. Mellencamp wrote and co-produced the track “Colored Lights,” which, as logic would dictate, sounds like an impressively skilled dive-bar house band taking a pass at a song that went astray from The Lonesome Jubilee. “Rock & Roll Will Stand” practically begs to kick off an hour of AOR programming, and both “Just Another Sunday,” co-written with X’s John Doe, and the relaxed honky-tonk number “Trouble Bound” are as straightforward in their appeal as George Thorogood’s various rehashes.

Aspirations to appeal to the masses didn’t necessarily temper Alvin’s songwriting sensibility. The chunky, satisfying blues-rock song “Dark Night” has challenging lyrics depict a murder motivated by bigotry (“I thought these things/ Didn’t happen anymore/ I thought all that blood/ Had been shed long ago”). Surely difficult for some to listen to and truly consider, the song has had the longest and most significant afterlife of any Blasters song. Even a seeming goof like the doo-wop–driven “Help You Dream” has the sly wherewithal to give the woman who’s the target of the singer’s boozily pitched some justifiably wry responses: “Well, you’ve got the nicest brown eyes/ And a little girl smile/ You should’ve been in movies/ You said, ‘I haven’t heard that in a while.'” As always, Alvin’s songwriting craft is exemplary.

The Blasters never really shut down as a going concern, but Hard Line was an end point of sorts. Dave Alvin exited the Blasters the following year part because of scraps with his brother, Phil Alvin, the band’s lead singer. Without their chief songwriter, twenty years passed before the Blasters recorded another studio album.

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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