College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #377 to #375

377. The Pogues, If I Should Fall from Grace with God (1988)

The Pogues had a mess on their hands. Somewhat surprisingly, given their reputation — or, to be clear, the reputation of their lead singer — the mess wasn’t off their own making. Well, it wasn’t entirely of their own making. Perhaps it’s fair to trace some of the problems roiling the band to the personnel on the roster. They surely own some of the souring relationship with Elvis Costello, who lent some transferred fame and musical guidance when he produced their album Rum Sodomy & the Lash and their EP Poguetry in Motion, and they dragged their collective feet in recording a new full-length album that would capitalize of their growing fan base. The real hurdle that needing clearing, though, was their label, Stiff Records, flopping into receivership. Since Stiff Records legally owned the rights to all recordings by the Pogues, the band was effectively stuck.

After months of wrangling, the Pogues finally found a lifeboat away from the sinking ship and got to work on their third studio album. Flush with material, the band offered the producer role to Steve Lillywhite, fresh off of work with the Rolling Stones and Talking Heads. The Pogues brought raucous inspiration, and Lillywhite brought professional polish. The resulting album, If I Should Fall from Grace with God, is arguably as good as the Pogues ever got on record.

The album earns its place in the canon by the inclusion of the exquisite “Fairytale of New York,”originally written by banjo player Jem Finer then polished into perfection through the evocative storytelling of lead singer Shane MacGowan. On the track, his flecked rust voice is countered by powerhouse wonder Kirsty MacColl, guesting to make it a duet. The lyrics have a barfly brutality to them that have caused controversy from the jump (the perpetually revived debate about whether certain words should be adjusted always positions the dilemma as newfound because of modern sensibilities, but MacGowan and MacColl willingly scrubbed the song’s derogatory slur for homosexuals as early as 1992). That pulp authenticity is part of the song’s considerable charm. I’m glad that one of the song’s dragged out every Christmas includes one character deriding another as “an old slut on junk.”

If I Should Fall from Grace with Go is far more than one cut, of course. The album is an ideal realization of the Pogues’ melding of time-testing Irish tones and brash punk energy, The churning title cut, jigging “Bottle of Smoke,” and Spanish-flavored “Fiesta” are satisfying dervishes. leaning right into their heritage, the Pogues romp through a medley of traditional Irish folk songs with “The Recruiting Sergeant/The Rocky Road to Dublin/The Galway Races.” More impressively, MacGowan proves himself a songwriter who can create material that feels just as enduring and poetically inspired as the lilting relics.“Lullaby of London” (“May the ghosts that howled/ Round the house at night/ Never keep you from your sleep/ May they all sleep tight/ Down in Hell tonight/ Or wherever they may be”) and “The Broad Majestic Shannon” (“And the next time I see you we’ll be down at the Greeks/ There’ll be whiskey on Sunday and tears on our cheeks/ For it’s stupid to laugh and it’s useless to bawl/ About a rusty tin can and an old hurley ball”) could be slipped into a dusty old songbook without stirring much suspicion.

The album kicked off a prolific stretch for the Pogues. They released new studio albums in each of the next two years and even got themselves a St. Paddy’s Day booking on Saturday Night Live, one of the more ill-advised choices in the venerable comedy program’s long history, given the slim chance MacGowan would be in any sort of shape to perform as the hour pushed past midnight.

376. Warren Zevon, Sentimental Hygiene (1987)

Most observers likely assumed Warren Zevon’s career was over. After repeatedly failing to duplicate the commercial and critical success of his 1978 album Excitable Boy, Zevon hit a new low with the 1982 studio effort The Envoy, which climbed no higher than the nineties on the Billboard album chart. The album performed so poorly that Zevon was dropped by Asylum Records, which he later claimed he only discovered when he read the news in the “Random Notes” section of Rolling Stone. Humiliated, Zevon largely retreated from the music business, a dalliance with three-quarters of R.E.M. representing the only new music he released in a five-year stretch. In that fallow period, Zevon also relapsed into the drug and alcohol abuse that had previously derailed him. By all accounts, his situation was grim. All those demerits made his unlikely revival all the more impressive.

With the fans and compatriots from R.E.M. essentially serving as his backing band, Zevon righted himself and went back into the studio, emerging with the album Sentimental Hygiene. Zevon’s songwriting might be at its absolutely height on the album. His trademark caustic streak is used to good effect on “Even a Dog Can Shake Hands,” a rollicking screed against predatory practices of showbiz opportunists (“Sign page forty-two/ We’ll do the rest for you/ Find a way to make it pay”), and the self-withering “Detox Mansion” (“Left my home in Music City/ In the back of a limousine/ Now I’m doin’ my own laundry/ And I’m gettin’ those clothes clean”). His personal troubles evidently allow him to expose levels of vulnerability that were previously verboten on Zevon’s records. The ballad “Reconsider Me” is a piercingly honest plea from a person who knows his destructive habits have let down loved ones: “And I’ll never make you sad again/ ‘Cause I swear that I’ve changed since then/ And I promise that I’ll never make you cry.” Even material that feels like it would shown up on earlier Zevon albums in a half-finished state — such as “Boom Boom Mancini” and death-disco number “Leave My Monkey Alone” — is solid and satisfying.

With his new label, Virgin Records, providing ample support and a large swath of the music press inclined to celebrate Zevon’s return to form, Sentimental Hygiene was a moderate success. Hardly a smash, it at least gave Zevon something to build on. Zevon’s ambition kicked in, and his next effort, Transverse City, was a loose concept album inspired by the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson. It bombed, and Zevon found himself again unceremoniously dropped by a label. Clearly, his road would never be smooth and easy.

375. Midnight Oil, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (1982)

10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 is the fourth studio album by the Australian band Midnight Oil. It’s also the one that made their homeland stand up and take notice of the politically minded firebrands with a gift from exploratory rock ‘n’ roll. Working with producer Nick Launay, who had recently worked with Public Image Ltd, the Birthday Party, and Gang of Four, the band fashions music that’s layered and complicated, built around familiar pop structure but varying widely, as if seeking lost truths in hidden corners.

Part of the Midnight Oil brief is to offer pointed commentary in the lyrics as the music offers steel-beam reinforcement. “U.S. Forces” employs a battering acoustic guitar line, clicking rhythm, and lead singer Peter Garrett’s restrained yowl to level angry charges against the United States military (“Divided world the CIA/ Say who control the issue/ You leave us with no time to talk/ You can write your own assessment”), and the thrumming “Power and the Passion” decries social lassitude (“Dad’s so bad he lives in the pub/ It’s a underarms and football clubs/ Flat chat, pine gap, in every home a big mac/ And no one goes outback, that’s that”). If the lyrics are sometimes didactic, there’s no denying their fiery assurance.

It’s really the sonic experimentation that sets 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 apart. “Only the Strong” is wildly ragged, “Somebody’s Trying to Tell Me Something” has post-punk intensity, and “Scream in Blue” is an epic of raw psychedelia. “Read About It” is probably the closest forecast to the material that resulted in a global breakthrough for Midnight Oil a few years, and a couple albums, later. Even that track has a barrel-roll energy that jolts it away from conventionality.

The talent and ambition spread across the album is fascinating and thrilling. In Australia, Midnight Oil became titans, with 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 taking up long-term residence on the album charts. The reception was more muted elsewhere. That wouldn’t be the case for too much longer.

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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