College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #335 to #333

335. Yello, Stella (1985)

Yello was down to a duo. Following the 1983 album Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess, founding member Carlos Perón split from the group to pursue a solo career. That left keyboardist and programmer Boris Blank and vocalist Dieter Meier to build upon the experimental synth pop that was starting to earn the band a small, devoted audience. For Stella, Yello’s fourth album, the twosome got ensnared by the allure of technology, attempting and abandoning different mixing techniques until they missed an initial deadline. They finally hunkered down in their home studio and diligently, meticulously remixed every track until they had exactly what they wanted. And what they wanted was a wild ride.

Stella has a handful of fairly straightforward dance tracks, such as “Desire,” which rides the fine line between electronica in a groove and electronica in a rut, and “Vicious Games,” boosted considerably by Rush Winters’s guest vocals. Yello’s dalliances with more conventional material further highlight the fearless bending of norms elsewhere on the record. “Stalakadrama” is awash in horror-flick organ bursts and synthesized screams, and “Ciel Ouvert” is all unsettled atmospherics. Rush is present again on the enjoyable “Angel No,” belting out “I don’t wanna be your angel/ I wanna be your witch” as the music wails and races behind and around her. “Sometimes” is arguably the most daunting mass of sonic mischief, giving the template to future digital oddballs M83 with its blipping anxiety, spoken word lyrics delivered in a asthmatic whisper, and a chorus sung with the apparent intent of shattering stained glass windows.

The album was a major hit in Yello’s homeland. Stella was the first album by a Swiss act to top the chart in Switzerland. It was a setback in the U.S., though, where it failed to chart. At least one of the copies sold stateside wound up on a turntable that represented a fortuitous turn for the band. Director John Hughes was a fan of the band, and he asked to use the Stella track “Oh Yeah” in his movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Used prominently in two separate parts of the hit comedy, the track’s novelty zing made it stick in the memory. Blank and Meier weren’t reticent about exploiting the growing recognizability of “Oh Yeah.” They freely licensed it out to an endless stream of movies, television shows, and commercials, amassing a tidy fortune.

334. UB40, Rat in the Kitchen (1986)

UB40 were very much a known commodity at home in the U.K. when they released their seventh full-length studio effort, Rat in the Kitchen. The album charged right into the Top 10, and had most of its predecessors, and it yielded the band’s third straight single to crack the Top 5, the satisfying anti-apartheid anthem “Sing Our Own Song.” The context was different in the U.S., where music fans were still wrapping their heads around this multicultural reggae act that specialized in tuneful agitation against the oppressive politics in Margaret Thatcher’s England. They’d recently enjoyed their first trip to the Billboard Top 40, with a cover of “I Got You Babe” that was boosted in its stateside prominence by Chrissie Hynde guesting to handle Cher’s side of the lyrics. Rat in the Kitchen was UB40’s first opportunity to build on that taste of success in North America.

“There’s really no room for the artist in this band,” saxophonist Brian Travers told NME around the time of the album’s release. “We might feel like branching out from time to time, but the fact is we’re not good enough. What you hear, that distinctive, unchanging sound, is exactly what we’re capable of.”

The sameness identified by Travers can be wearying on UB40 records. Rat in the Kitchen is largely an exception, proving that sometimes actual treasure can come from swinging the pickaxe at the same thick vein of sound. “All I Want to Do” lopes along with its evocative description of working-class alienation (“I don’t like the work but true I need the money/My life is like a joke but to me is isn’t funny”), and bouncy “Tell It Like It Is” makes it seem utterly logical for a song to be both musically bouncy and lyrically pointed (“Now I get serious about being blatant/ Police come and mess with me pon the pavement/ They say oi’ where you going, what you doing here?/ I just leave mi house fi go buy a tin of beer”). “Don’t Blame Me” swings along, and “Watchdogs” has a balladic lilt as it rails against censorship, a topic UB40 hit especially hard from the stage when, a few months after the album’s release, they became one of the first Western rock acts to tour the U.S.S.R.

UB40 definitely had the support of their U.S. label, A&M Records. Herb Albert, whose status as a co-found accounted for the A in the label’s name, even guested on Rat in the Kitchen, playing trumpet on the mesmerizingly redundant nearly-title track “Rat in Mi Kitchen.” Despite a healthy promotional push, the album sputtered out on the U.S. charts, finishing with a similarly lackluster peak as other recent UB40 albums. The band’s big commercial breakthrough in the U.S. was still a couple years away, and it took a truly bizarre set of circumstances to make it happen.

333. Julian Cope, Saint Julian (1987)

Julian Cope has a well-earned reputation as a prickly outsider unconcerned with his placement on the sprawling org chart of music-biz notoriety. For a fleeting moment in the late nineteen-eighties, though, he seemed to put genuine effort into becoming a full-on rock star.

The former frontman for the Teardrop Explodes had a clattering start to his solo career, releasing a pair of albums on Mercury Records that were commercial flops. Mercury was also the home for the Teardrop Explodes, and the label had decent success with them. When Cope was split away from the group, music execs were dumbfounded by him and the music he created, regularly rejected, or at least disparaging, the material he delivered. The relationship was severed after Cope’s 1984 sophomore album, Fried, stalled on the charts. Cope got a new manager, pulled back on his copious drug use, and signed with Island Records, a label he saw as a far more copacetic partner. He donned a new uniform of tight black leather and worked with producers Ed Stasium and Warne Livesey, both of them with special talents for big, buffed up rock sounds. Partially to mock the pompous posturing of many politically minded musicians of the day, such U2 and Tears for Fears, Cope titled the album Saint Julian.

Island Records reworked the track listing for the U.S., front-loading the hits. The album opens with the splendidly snotty “World Shut Your Mouth,” which had already made an impression on college radio as an advance single. It’s followed by the A-ha swirl of “Trampolene,” on which Cope repeatedly sings, “I can’t believe you’re trampling me,” and “Eve’s Volcano,” a sweet amble of a song with characteristically mischievous lyrics (“Doo doo doo doo doo/ I can’t seem to win/ My heart starts beating and I’m covered with sin”). Other tracks, such as the banging rocker “Spacehopper,” deepen the impression that Cope was in a total embrace of the possibility to kicking raucously at the door with arena tours and Rolling Stone covers behind it. “Planet Ride” is so thickly produced — sharp gated drum sound, gleaming backup vocals — that it keeps threatening to lapse into a Jody Watley pop workout.

There are signs of Cope the inveterate oddball on the album, too. “Screaming Secrets” is lithe psychedelic pop, almost hitting the same tingly vibe Robyn Hitchcock had at the time, and “A Crack in the Clouds” is a sprawling mass of proggy pageantry, like Cope held back those instincts for the rest of the record and had to dump everything that went pent up into a single track. Anyone who found their way to Saint Julian because of the poppier elements were going to get a little dose of Cope’s vibrant unconventionality, too.

Saint Julian was a modest hit. It was also a breakthrough. Saint Julian just missed the Top 10 in the U.K., and “World Shut Your Mouth” was his highest-charting solo single there. In the U.S., the album and single took Cope onto the respective Billboard charts for the first time. (The two studio albums from the Teardrop Explodes made brief appearances on the Billboard album chart.) It was a start. Copes took it as encouragement to keep exploring his safer side. His next album aimed straight for pop-chart acclaim.

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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