College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #353 to #351

353. Meat Puppets, Mirage (1987)

Meat Puppets spent the first chunk of the nineteen-eighties making music almost relentlessly. They churned out recordings with speed and aplomb, then followed those with lengthy tours. About the only think that could slow their progress was outside forces or bad luck. The latter came calling when they were on the road supporting the EP Out My Way and guitarist Curt Kirkwood smashed his finger in the slamming door of the band’s touring van. Their typical rapid-turnaround schedule scuttled, Meat Puppets were able to build up some ambition before they made their way back into the studio. Always exploring with intent to evolve past whatever subgenre they’re at risk of being pigeonholed into, Meat Puppets took the extra time unexpectedly afforded them and came up with material that was bigger, lusher, and more intricate than anything they’d done before.

In its base particulars, Mirage finds that Arizona band exploring the booming psychedelic rock of twenty years earlier, the late-sixties soundscapes that eventually morphed into full-scale hard rock. The wild and colorful cover art signals the new direction, and the cascading, churning title cut underscores the route. Irresistible “The Mighty Zero” (“Four sides of curves/ You call it round/ It’s saying nothing/ Doesn’t make a sound”) and “Beauty,” distinguished by especially nimble guitar playing, fortify the theme, ably demonstrating the impressive scale and scope Meat Puppets can generate. It’s a scruffy sort of majesty they conjure up.

Explorers don’t stay put, though. Mirage doesn’t get lost in its own patchouli fog. It has the plunky, cool college rock of “Get On Down,” low-key cowpunk of “Confusion Fog,” and a funkier version of Thin Lizzy’s raw, headlong rock on “I Am a Machine.” When they allow themselves to venture back to the punk-fired fury of the scene where they got they start, on “Liquified,” Meat Puppets approach the razor-wire intensity of Hüsker Dü. Meat Puppets bring ambition to every track on Mirage. Impressively, their skills are always up to whatever daunting task they set themselves.

Their new album ready after a longer delay than they would have preferred, Meat Puppets returned to the familiar pattern of loading up the amps and hitting the highway. There, they discovered where the range of their aspirations did run up against the limits of ability. They found the songs on Mirage were extremely difficult to recreate on stage. Before they knew it, Meat Puppets were again back in the studio, working quickly on what would become their second album released that year.

352. The Rolling Stones, Emotional Rescue (1980)

After some softening of their critical veneration and commercial solidity during the middle of the nineteen-seventies, the Rolling Stones did what they were arguably better at than all of their peers out on pop culture’s vast, tumultuous ocean: They surveyed the wind and adjusted their sails. Some Girls, released in 1978, was unmistakably a product of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and their leather-skinned cohorts. It just as clearly influenced by the emergent sounds of punk and disco, discordant new genres that were garnering attention and record sales. Jagger, in particular, figured out how to inject a dose of the kids’ music into the the seasoned adults’ rock ‘n’ roll. The resulting album returned the Rolling Stones to the top of the U.S. singles chart for the first time in five years. Some Girls was a smash, becoming — and still standing as — the band’s biggest-selling album in the U.S. There was no time to lose in getting out a follow-up.

Obviously energized by their rejuvenated success, the Rolling Stones develop a large set of songs for the album Emotional Rescue. They remained committed to the disco dabbling that reacquainted them with the number one, making the intention to soundtrack a night at the club as clear as can be by titling the opening track “Dance (Pt. 1).” On the title cut, Jagger goes so far as to adopt a Gibb brother falsetto at points. The Rolling Stones might have been getting slagged by longtime fans for conforming to the fever of the moment, but none of that made the money spend differently. They were happy to turn the beat around as long as that sold records.

The Rolling Stones weren’t a one-basket kind of band, though. Emotional Rescue tinkers around with several styles, usually with middling results. “Send It to Me” adopts a reggae beat and is otherwise fairly slipshod, and the politicized ballad “Indian Girl” is like the Eagles crossed with a mariachi band, with Jagger unfortunately spitting out a few lyrics with a faux Spanish accent. “All About You,” Richards’s usual turn in the lead vocalist role, represents maybe the only instance of the Rolling Stones sounding like the Velvet Underground. There are also instances when tracks comes across as, for lack of a better description, classic Rolling Stones. “Let Me Go” could be a cast-off from Exile on Main Street (not causing much confusion about why it didn’t make the cut), and “She’s So Cold” is a prime example of the band putting it all together (with “all” including a dash of casual misogyny) into a tight, unshakable rock song as only they could.

Emotional Rescue was another hit for the Rolling Stones, even if it wasn’t nearly as strong a performer as its immediate predecessor. At this point, everything was clicking, except for the relationship between the band’s two principals. Richards wanted to tour in support of the album, and Jagger didn’t. Jagger won that argument, creating a rift that grew more problematic in the decade ahead. In the nearer future, the band had a lot of songs leftover from the Emotional Rescue sessions that needed a home.

351. Talking Heads, Fear of Music (1979)

On the basis of the nervy, slyly unorthodox songs on their first two studio albums, Talking Heads didn’t seem like a band that was primed to break into the Top 40. And yet, there they were, albeit with the comparative comfort of a cover song. Talking Heads’ version of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” was released as a single from their sophomore album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and cracked the Billboard chart. It peaked at #26, hardly smash hit territory but successful enough that made the band wary. Mostly, according to lead singer David Byrne, they were worried that the enticement of greater success might taint their process.

“We’re in a funny position,” Byrne told Rolling Stone at the time. “It wouldn’t please us to make music that’s impossible to listen to, but we don’t want to compromise for the sake of popularity.”

Their process had other problems anyway. A collaborative band with a frontman inclined toward spotlighting his own singular genius, if genially and not altogether inaccurately, Talking Heads was already enduring personal and professional discord. The dilemma of Byrne’s self-aggrandizement was heightened by the record company ratifying that view. They treated the singer as a special figure in what the others felt should be a band of equals. When Byrne lamented that he was having trouble coming up with new ideas, the band’s label, Sire Records, ponied up the funds to send him on vacation to Trinidad to recharge his whirring mind. The rest of the band — bassist Tina Weymouth, drummer Chris Frantz, and guitarist-keyboardist Jerry Harrison — weren’t offered any airline tickets to help jump start their respective inspirations.

The initial sessions for Talking Heads’ third album went poorly. Like a lot of acts, they’d used up their full backlog of material on their first two records and were essentially starting from scratch. Recording sessions in a traditional studio space went nowhere, so Weymouth and Frantz alit upon the idea of going back to basics. They recreated the band’s earlier, scrappier days when they jammed out in a big, empty, warehouse-like space until songs came together. Weymouth and Frantz rearranged their Long Island loft to accommodate band sessions. A mobile studio was parked outside and cables threaded in through the windows. With returning producer Brian Eno at the helm, Talking Heads would work out new ideas the old way until they had finished tracks.

The approach worked. The resulting full-length, Fear of Music, is arguably the first truly brilliant album by Talking Heads. All dark grooves, inventive rhythms, and thrilling contrasts, the album takes pop music, turns it inside out and then spins it on its axis. “I ZImbra” is like funk music from outer space, its unnerving qualities enhanced by the use of adapted poetry by Dadaist Hugo Ball for the lyrics, and the propulsive “Cities” is dance-floor sweat alchemized into pliable melody. “Life During Wartime,” the album’s most enduring track, is a novella of modern anxiety (“Why stay in college? Why go to night school?/ Gonna be different this time/ Can’t write a letter, can’t send no postcard/ I ain’t got time for that now”) that spins and sparkles as relentlessly as a motorized disco ball, it’s lyrical protests to the contrast notwithstanding (“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco/ This ain’t no fooling around”).

Not to be too simplistic about it (of all the evaluative approaches Talking Heads invite, simplicity is abysmally low on the list), but everything on Fear of Music works, whether the smooth “Air,” the intoxicating loveliness of “Heaven,” or the seething intensity of “Paper.” Even when the band slides dangerously close to becoming a parody of art rock — as on “Electric Guitar” — their mix of steely command and tectonic unpredictability prevails. Maybe it’s sincere, or maybe it’s ironic. Either way, it sounds great.

If Fear of Music is thrillingly cohesive, the band that made it still wasn’t. Initially, the album officially listed Byrne as the sole songwriter on every track except “I Zimbra,” a disbursement of credit that didn’t reflect the process that relied on a lot of exploratory playing to shape the material. Following protests by his bandmates, Byrne relented and adjustments were made on later editions. This particular trouble kept on brewing. For a time, it didn’t prevent Talking Heads from prospering creatively. There was more magnificence to come.

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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