College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #341 to #339

341. Sonic Youth, EVOL (1986)

In retrospect, it’s clear that EVOL is the album that marked Sonic Youth starting to grow up. Devotees of the band’s earlier anti-music roughhousing might have been more inclined to call it selling out, to the degree that the willful abrasiveness routinely perpetrated by the New York City rockers could ever be characterized as friendly to the marketplace. EVOL was released into the world where the song atop the U.S. pop charts was Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All,” pretty much the antithesis of what Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, and Steve Shelley were doing.

EVOL was the first album Sonic Youth made after signed with SST Records, and they were put together with producer Martin Bisi, who felt Sonic Youth’s approach was less artistic statement and more preemptive strike against criticism about their developing craft. Still reliant on inexpensive, beat-up equipment, Sonic Youth was making music that aligned with every other aspect of their ragtag stature.

“They wanted to make things sound shitty or not quite right somehow,” Bisi said later.

As someone who recorded the likes of Fred Frith and Herbie Hancock at B.C. Studio, a Brooklyn space he started with Brian Eno and Bill Laswell, Bisi couldn’t bring himself to preserve the Sonic Youth aesthetic. The producer pushed the band to sound more professional, a process that contributed to what Shelley termed the “growing pains” of making the record. It’s easy to screw around and make noise. It’s more difficult to make complex, inverted rock music that is gorgeous, enticing, enveloping noise. On EVOL, Sonic Youth starts to move in the direction of being able to master the more the difficult feat.

The album opens with the stately “Tom Violence,” and it feels like a band of cunning miscreants tuning up, clearing their throats, finding their collective voice. There are plenty of instance on the record where Sonic Youth persists in this tone of low menace. “Marilyn Monroe,” collaboration with Lydia Lunch, sounds like Bauhaus played on a slower speed, and “Shadow of a Doubt” places breathy vocals by Kim atop plunking, deliberate music. The raucously jagged “Death to Our Friends” shows how the band can implement a similar plan with a cheese-grater-across-the-knuckles fervor.

There are clearly, thrilling stirrings of the more refined version of Sonic Youth that would so become an absolutely dominant — and amazingly enduring — force in college radio. “Secret Girl” is somehow delicate and intense at the same time, a longstanding Sonic Youth magic trick, and “Starpower” could be the starter ingredient for any number of tracks found on Goo onward. “Expressway to Yr. Skull” is probably the most striking signpost to the future, though I’d argue they never sounded quite this way again. Epic and sweeping, like Bruce Springsteen as a noise rocker, the track place abstractions again relatively straightforward calls to emotional action (“We’re gonna find the meaning/ Of feeling good/ And we’re gonna stay there as long as we think we should”). Like the Replacements’ “Color Me Impressed” or “Within Your Reach,” the closing track on EVOL is the sound of a band that short circuited criticism by feigning disinterest finally deciding to try, to really try. It would only get better from here.

340. Simple Minds, New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) (1982)

Feeling like they were of the verge of making a major move into greater commercial success with their fifth album, and their second for Virgin Records, Simple Minds made a surprising choice for who’d fill the producer role. At the time Peter Walsh was recruited to produce New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), he was a mere youth, not much past his twentieth birthday. Charlie Burchill, the lead guitarist of Simple Minds, was quite taken with Walsh’s remix of the 1981 single “Sweat in Bullet.” Burchill enthused to his bandmates that the reworking wasn’t special because of everything extra had loaded into the track, the common tactic when buffing up a song from dance floor. Instead, it was impressive how much Walsh had stripped up, getting to the core of the song.

New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) sounds like born stadium rockers finding their sly discotheque groove. “Glittering Prize” flirts most aggressively with dance pop, but a propensity for shiny shimmies is all over the record. The atmospheric groove of “Somebody Up There Likes Me” invites the listener to wallow around in it, and “Someone Somewhere in Summertime” takes a lean hook and constructs a chirping anthem around it. “Hunter and the Hunted” is swirly and juicy, in part due to a characteristically riveting keyboard solo by guesting Herbie Hancock. Buoyed by an especially strong vocal from lead singer Jim Kerr, “Promised You a Miracle,” the album’s lead single, is like future Simple Minds hit “All the Things She Said” performed with the sass and unfettered freedom of Duran Duran in their hit-making prime.

Strong as the material is, there’s an underlying sense that Simple Minds is still figuring out the band they want to be, testing out the variations in their sound to see what yielded the most positive response. There was more reinvention on the horizon for the Scottish group. If the shifts didn’t quote crack the code of chart success in the U.S., the exploration and accompanying self-assurance was getting Simple Minds noticed by exactly the sort of music industry hotshots who, before long, knew exactly how to get the band to the next level.

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339. ABC, The Lexicon of Love (1982)

Martin Fry punched out from his day job in a Sheffield baked beans factory and headed out to interview an industrial rock band called Vice Versa, intended to write about them in the fanzine he published. During the journalistic encounter, Fry clicked with the band, comprised of Stephen Singleton and Mark White, impressing them enough that they soon asked him to join the lineup. The trio eventually decided the noisy approach didn’t suit them any longer, and they took as drastic of a U-turn as they could, striving for polished, elegant pop songs instead. Striking out in this new direction, they renamed the band ABC.

They filled our the band further — with regularly shifting personnel, forecasting the longterm pliability of ABC — and went to work with Trevor Horn, who was a prime driver behind the Buggles and was justing starting to build a formidable reputation as a producer of sleek inventive pop. Horn was precisely the right person to discern and accentuate the creative instincts of this new act, taking their Roxy Music–like panache and heightening it to luxuriant extremes.

“It was like disco, but in a Bob Dylan kind of way,” Horn said of The Lexicon of Love, ABC’s debut album, and it somehow, someway stands as the perfect description.

The album’s major hit is “The Look of Love (Part One),” released as a single without the numeric signifier. (The album also includes “The Look of Love (Part Four),” which is basically an instrumental reprise.) Sounding like a dapper, dignified celebration of romanticism, the song’s lyrics tell a different story, one of crushing disappointment: “When your girl has left you out on the pavement/ Then your dreams fall apart at the seams/ Your reason for living’s your reason for leaving/ Don’t ask me what it means.” It’s sly and smart, and lures in the dewy-eyed pop disciple like a Venus flytrap.

There are certainly times on The Lexicon of Love where Horn’s willingness to swerve into the lane of indulgent excess results in tracks that are fussier than they need to be, “Valentine’s Day” and “Date Stamp” among them, and the empty white funk of “Tears are Not Enough” is evidence that ABC didn’t always know when the lapsed into hollow pastiche from the smooth pop that was well beyond what anyone else was doing at the time. The album’s best cuts, though, are absolutely irresistible. The dopey call and response on “Poison Arrow” (“Who broke my heart/ You did, you did”) is so airily simplistic that is circles back around to profound. The big, theatrical “All of My Heart” (“Once upon a time when we were friends/ I gave you my heart, the story ends/ No happy ever after now we’re friends”) is downright grand.

The Lexicon of Love was a hit, and ABC became one of those bands that helped define MTV as it growth-spurted from scrappy upstart to a powerhouse in the music industry. These levels of success proved daunting for the band, and they struggled to find their footing after it, despite the odd stray hit.

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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