College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #365 to #363

365. The The, Soul Mining (1983)

Matt Johnson was just a teenager when he posted flyers seeking musical collaborators who, like him, were inspired by Syd Barrett and Throbbing Gristle. The various collaborators who came into his sphere over the course of the next few years primarily convinced Johnson that he wanted something more fluid than a permanent band lineup. Dubbed The The, Johnson’s band played several gigs and released a few singles through the first part of the nineteen-eighties, but it took a little more time before they could manage to pull together a full-length album. Johnson released a 1981 solo album, Burning Blue Soul, (that was later repackaged as a The The release), but the first crack at a The The LP was scrapped. Retaining only a couple songs penned for that project, Johnson otherwise started from scratch. That do-over resulted in a wonder of pop reinvention.

Soul Mining is somewhat grounded in the musical moment in which it was released. And yet Johnson piles so much invention into each song that the album simultaneously sounds well ahead of its time. “I’ve Been Waitin’ for Tomorrow (All of My Life)” has a thumping rhythm, staticky effects in the background, and a headlong energy. The snaky, jittery title cut and the swingy, smooth “Uncertain Smile” suggest Johnson giving himself little stylistic tests and then handily passing them. “Giant” is big batch of song, stretching more than nine minutes in length, where the beats absolutely take over. The album’s pinnacle, and the most enduring The The song, is “This is the Day.” Evocative in its lyrics (“Well, you didn’t wake up thjis morning ’cause you didn’t go to bed/ You were watching the whites of your eyes turn red”) and impeccable in its musical craft, “This is the Day” is a practically perfect pop single.

There was a strong label push for Soul Mining. It was largely futile. Singles and the album stalled out on the U.K. charts and barely registered in the U.S., aside from college radio. Johnson had his template built, though. if he wasn’t particular prolific in the years to come, his sly invention impressively persisted and expanded.

364. Timbuk 3, Eden Alley (1988)

Flinty and idiosyncratic in their musical approach, Timbuk 3 surely didn’t expect that they’d have the success of a hit single hanging over them as they recorded their sophomore album. Then “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” unexpectedly took off, carrying the band, comprised of married couple Pat and Barbara K. MacDonald, into the Billboard Top 20. At the same time, the song in question had a whiff of novelty to it, in part because most listeners — and radio programmers, for that matter — missed that it was largely about the threat of nuclear war. Whether or not they felt compelled to do, Timbuk 3 showed on Eden Alley that they had more to offer beyond the genuine, but gimmicky, charms of their attention-getting track.

There are a few stray moments when it feels like MacDonald is still skirting Dr. Demento’s kingdom, as with the bluesy “Rev. Jack & His Roamin’ Cadillac Church” and even the tricky, weirdo folk song “Sample the Dog” (“There’s a new age family out in North Carolina/ A dog named Jamaica, a daughter/ named China/ A son who plays in a band called Sample the Dog”). The bulk of the material demonstrates sharp songwriting skills with a particular talent giving simple, straightforward observations the weight of deeply felt conviction. “Welcome to the Human Race” is the finest example of this rock alchemy. The plaintive melody and the Macdonalds’ reedy, intermingled vocals elevate the sentiments of the lyrics (“So it seems you been runnin’ in circles/ Now you can’t even get to first base/ And you feel like the tide has turned against you/ Welcome to the human race”). “Easy” has a feel that suits its title, and “Reckless Driver” is appealing twangy funk.

Even the little bitty bit of song that is “Little People Make Big Mistakes” has a charm to it. No one else sounded quite like Timbuk 3 at this point: probing, clever, understated, and warmly off-kilter. That uniqueness further meant it wasn’t likely that the duo would repeated the fluke of their earlier commercial success. Eden Alley didn’t do much on the mainstream charts. A few years later, the MacDonalds divorced, and Timbuk 3 was done for good.

363. X, Under the Big Black Sun (1982)

For many observers, it always seemed X was the band in the late nineteen-seventies punk scene that was most likely to edge toward the mainstream. That isn’t meant to imply a unseemly willingness to sell out, though that characterization was likely hurled by some churlish purists. Instead, X clearly had a clarity of purpose and a base professionalism that outpaced their peers. It was no surprise that they were on a major label by their third album, afforded the finances, latitude, and supporting personnel to make ply their trade without the impediments of hardscrabble band existence. Elektra Records snapped up X and sent them back into the studio with their regular producer Ray Manzarek, a longstanding member of the label’s galaxy of stars thanks to his tenure with the Doors.

X’s major label debut, Under the Big Black Sun, is powerful and thunderous. It also has a obvious commitment to songcraft and a clear dedication to evolving from punk music to material recognizable as pure, raw rock ‘n’ roll. Tracks “Motel Room in My Bed,” “Because I Do,” and “How I (Learned My Lesson)” are as blistering as anything X ever put on record. the evolution doesn’t come at the expense of the band’s fury. Sure, they incorporate spruced-up sixties rock with a cover of “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” and shape fine honky-tonk with “The Have Nots,” the latter track forecasting shifts to come. None of that blunts the pure force X brings to every cut.

For Exene Cervenka, X’s powerhouse vocalist, the album is tinged with melancholy. Her sister Mirielle perished in an automobile accident two years before the album’s release, and she processed some of her grief through songwriting. “Riding with Mary,” “Come Back to Me,” and the title cut, most of the first side, deal with that pain, managing becoming maudlin. X is too controlled to call them relentless, but it’s accurate to say they don’t compromise their power. Under the Big Black Sun, like everything X had laid down to that point, hits hard.

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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