College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #374 to #372

374. Yaz, Upstairs at Eric’s (1982)

Following the breakup of her group the Screamin’ Ab Dabs, Alison Moyet was a singer without a band. She followed a practice common to musical strays at the time by placing an ad in Melody Maker magazine. She had in mind a bluesy, roots-rock sound, at least until she heard from the sole respondent to her call for collaborators. Vince Clarke had just quit Depeche Mode, after performing on — and writing most of the song for — the band’s debut album, Speak & Spell, and he, too, was on the hunt for new creative partnerships. He brought with him a song titled “Only You.” The duo recorded a demo and took it to Daniel Miller, the head of Mute Records, who Clarke knew from his time in Depeche Mode. Although Miller was lukewarm on the demo, the spiking attention of some publishers convinced him to let Clarke and Moyet record it as a single. Taking the name Yazoo from the old blues label, a nod to Moyet’s initial inclination for the newly formed act, the pair recorded and released “Only You,” an exquisite piece of electronic heartache bolstered by Moyet’s powerhouse vocals. The track was a major hit in the U.K., missing the top of the chart only because it couldn’t get past Nicole’s “A Little Peace,” an insipid drib of starry-eyed folk that had recently won the Eurovision Song Contest in its original German iteration.

Yazoo raced into the studio to record more material, hoping to capitalize on their quick success. Signed to Mute, Clarke figured the only real choice was to record at Blackwing, the label’s preferred studio. The recording spaces were fully booked, and Miller’s continued soft interest in Yazoo made him unwilling to advocate for his new hitmakers. Clarke and Moyet worked out a deal with the studio’s owner, Eric Radcliffe, to work on their new album during off-hours, when the space would usually be vacant and, therefore, not generating any revenue. Radcliffe came it to help, earning a producing credit. In acknowledgement, and perhaps in a slight jab at Miller, Yazoo opted to namecheck Radcliffe in the title of resulting debut full-length, dubbing it Upstairs at Eric’s.

The album is a dizzying feat of pop reinvention, deploying synths and studio tools in ingenious ways, all in the name of serving dizzyingly good hooks and expert songcraft. “Don’t Go” is insistent and thrilling, and “Bring Your Love Down (Didn’t I)” levels up the best of disco. The album holds some odd experimentation — notably the digitized head trip “I Before E Except After C” — but it mainly demonstrates how different musical instincts can be brought together in marvelous new tuneful concoctions. The lean, snaky “Bad Connection,” the goth intensity of “In My Room,” and the spirited “Situation” (presented in a remixed form on the U.S. release) are simultaneously of and beyond the dance music of the time, all manifestations of the push and pull of the Clarke and Moyet partnership. Few songs showcase how their dueling sensibilities could magically cohere better than “Midnight,” which merges Moyet’s dazzling soul singing with Clarke’s restless tonal tinkering.

For the U.S. release of the album, the name Yazoo wouldn’t do, in part because of rumblings of lawsuit from the blues record label but more because there was already a small American band that has claimed that name. The moniker was shortened to Yaz, a name that was also already claimed, though by an individual whose fame might not have penetrated the sphere of the dance club. Upstiars at Eric’s was only a modest success initially in the U.S. It had staying power, though. By the end of the decade, its steady sales earned it platinum certification. The band didn’t have the same longevity. After one more album, recorded while Moyet and Clarke were barely on speaking terms, Yazoo broke up.

373. The Long Ryders, State of Our Union (1985)

The Long Ryders had already started work on their sophomore album when their prospects brightened considerably. Following the release of their debut full-length, Native Sons, on the the independent label Frontier Records, the band laid down several tracks for an intended follow-up. Not long after, they embarked on a tour of the U.K., which was at that time especially receptive to the earnest Americana peddled by the Long Ryders. They landed on the cover of NME and played sold-out shows, one of which was promptly followed, according to bassist Tom Stevens, by representatives of around a dozen major labels storming the band’s hotel, contracts in hand. The Long Ryders signed with Island Records and took their generously supplemented recording budget as cause to start from scratch for their next record. Working with producer Will Birch, the band laid down their sophomore album and major label debut, State of Our Union, at Chipping Norton Recording Studios, in Oxfordshire, England, along way from the dingy Los Angeles clubs where they first made their name.

The album is like a successful project response to the prompt “Make a roots rock record,” at least as they existed in the mid–nineteen eighties. The material has the roughed-up, off-the-cuff feel of barroom rockers with a coating of studio gloss. “Looking for Lewis and Clark” is brash and loose, and “Capturing the Flag” has the precise, twang-touched yearning that would be perfected a couple years later by Fire Town. The Long Ryders somehow manage to sound grimy and dreamy at the same time on “WDIA,” a tribute to a Memphis radio station, and the prove themselves capable on being shrewdly on-trend with the lean “Mason-Dixon Line,” which has a touch of R.E.M. jangle to it. If nothing on the album really asserts itself as infectious or memorable, there’s a level of sharp professionalism that’s hard to discount. “Here Comes That Train Again” is like Centerfield-era John Fogerty, and that’s an impressive comparison for a relatively young band to draw.

There are times when it feels like the Long Ryders are straining to fill out the playlist, as with the languid ballad “Two Kinds of Love.” Mostly, though, they offer a solidly capable introduction to their serious-minded approach to rock ‘n’ roll music. The album wasn’t received warmly in all quarters. Spin offered a review dismissive enough that Sid Griffin, the Long Ryders’ frontman, felt compelled to pen a lengthy response that appeared in the publication’s letters column a couple months after the pan. Announcing a need to correct the review’s “startling inaccuracies,” Griffin largely defended the band’s bona fides. At the top of the agenda was distancing the band from its beginnings in Los Angeles, a fact that inconveniently undercut their heartland brand.

“No Long Ryder aspires to the Writer’s Guild or to dine with Woody at Elaine’s,” wrote Griffin. “With a guitarist from Virginia, a bass player from Elkhart, Indiana, and me, born and raised for 20-plus years in the Bluegrass State, I’d say the Long Ryders are about as Hollywood as bourbon whisky.”

372. The Jam, The Jam (1981)

In the early nineteen-eighties, the U.S. and the U.K. had very different marketplaces when it came to singles. Acts could proceed one song at a time and still move a lot of records in the U.K. North American music fans, and radio stations, weren’t nearly as receptive to that model, leading to material that had already cleaned up on one side of the Atlantic getting awkward repurposing to suit the different demands in North America. Even as the Jam had a string of hits at home in the U.K., Polydor Records felt obligated to continually forge new strategies to help them break through in the U.S. The band was in a perpetual state of introduction.

More than a dozen singles and several albums deep into a thriving career, the Jam saw some of their recent material jumbled together on an EP for North America. In Canada, the EP bore the name of the opening track, the juicy, horn-stung singalong “Absolute Beginners,” but the U.S. market got a record simply titled The Jam. The self-titled approach has a whisper of exasperation to it. You’ve maybe heard of this band by now? Just buy a record from them already.

A random grab of any five cuts from the Jam put together on a record is sure to provide a satisfying listen, and The Jam is that. “Tales from the Riverbank” is prickly, smart, and fully formed, and “Funeral Pyre” is gloriously cataclysmic. “Liza Radley” is compelling evidence that Paul Weller’s, the Jam’s frontman and ace songwriter, was the one true successor to Ray Davies. That Davies’s band the Kinks enjoyed only modest success in the U.S., especially with their smartest, most ambitious work, tidily illustrates the long odds faced by the EP. It did manage to edge onto the Billboard album chart, peaking at a pitiful #176.

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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