College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #332 to #330

332. Echo & the Bunnymen, Crocodiles (1980)

“It feels like there’s hundreds of bands in Liverpool,” Ian McCulloch proclaimed not long after the release of Crocodiles, the debut album by his band Echo & the Bunnymen. “There’s some okay ones, but we’re about the only one I can think of a being a potentially great band.”

If the act that with the same hometown as the Beatles was boastful, they arguably had good cause to be. The band was eagerly championed by Seymour Stein, impresario of Sire Records, who signed them when the number of gigs they’d played had just passed into the single digits. Due to some inscrutable financial entanglements, releasing the earliest Echo & the Bunnymen material on Sire was a no-go in the U.K., leading Stein to form a new label, Korovo, partnered up with Rob Dickens, who had the band under contract for the publishing. After a couple singles, Echo & the Bunnymen released Crocodiles, their full-length debut.

Produced mostly by Bill Drummond and David Balfe, both former members of Big Japan who had significant connections with innovative Liverpudlian band the Teardrop Explodes, Crocodiles helped set the trajectory of college rock to come. To this point, there were other emerging bands formulating new approaches to British pop, but none of them had quite the same smoothness and certainty of Echo & the Bunnymen. Whatever references they made to earlier rock music, most notably in the some of swirl recognizable from old psychedelic records, were largely subsumed by a forward-thinking, sly craftsmanship. The pliable toughness of “Going Up” and the swooping yet rhythmically precise and relentless “Monkeys” are downright intoxicating. “Rescue” is embedded in the DNA of all the floppy-haired, layabout pop that started storming the British charts a decade later. The post-punk flintiness of “All That Jazz” and the goofball experimentalism of “Happy Death Man” demonstrate the range Echo & the Bunnymen could bring to an album while simultaneously reinforcing that their more lush, contained offerings were the proper path to follow.

The North American version of Crocodiles, which could be released by Sire, added the chiming and gritty “Do It Clean” and the edgy “Read It In Books,” the latter a leftover from McCulloch’s writing sessions with Julian Cope. Both songs were initially left off of U.K. pressings on the album (while being included on cassette) because of a Warner Bros. exec mistakenly believes they had explicit lyrics. Both tracks are incredibly strong, making it an example of U.S. record buyers getting the better deal when tracklists were rejiggered on their side of the Atlantic. The extra music was simply added exhibits making the case the Echo & the Bunnymen weren’t just potentially great. From album number one, they were already there.

331. The Damned, Anything (1986)

The Damned weren’t ready to go back into the studio. The trailblazers of U.K. punk had already taken a pivot into a more ornate, goth-rock sound, mostly due to the expanded influence of lead singer Dave Vanian after founding guitarist Captain Sensible split for a solo career, and the band’s relatively new label MCA Records wanted to capitalize on the somewhat different audience the Damned were building on the strength of the 1985 album Phantasmagoria. Most of the songs on Anything, the Damned’s seventh studio album, were written in the midst of the recording process.

Even as none of the tracks on Anything sound unfinished, there’s certainly a sense that the Damned are good distance from their formidable peak. They romp along with a version of the slicked-up goth rock of the moment, a bizarrely hopeful attempt to bring commercialized safety to the haunting intensity of Bauhaus and their brethren. The title song and “Restless” are like the Sisters of Mercy without the expanse, and “Gigolo” is glossy goth with a proggy hangover. There’s a welcome tang of former punk fervor on “Psychomania,” which comes across as a less dangerous version of the Cramps. At the most dire, the Damned offer a clunky cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or” that is so ungrounded in genre that it has no center or gravity.

There’s also a cinematic quality to some of the cuts on Anything, which paid off for the band when “In Dulce Decorum” wound up on Miami Vice, its undercurrent reminiscent enough of the To Live and Die in L.A. soundtrack that it seems like the Damned might have been targeting such placement. “Tightrope Score” and instrumental track “The Portrait” are ready to be laced into an especially melodramatic film, maybe populated by stylish modern-day vampires who prowl warehouse nightclubs filled with smoke effects.

Anything underperformed, or at least it didn’t match the hopes of MCA Records. The Damned went back into the studio the following year, but the label’s impatience intervened. In midstream, the Damned were informed that their contract was scrapped. The Damned looked at the wall and saw writing there. They embarked on a series of farewell dates, dubbed the Final Damnation tour, with Captain Sensible and fellow original-and-departed member Brian James rejoining the lineup for some dates. The implication of finality proved inaccurate. The Damned persisted continuing to tour and release albums for decades to come.

330. Joan Armatrading, Walk Under Ladders (1981)

After several years of plateauing at critically acclaimed cult hero status, Joan Armatrading leaned into pop music with the 1980 album Me Myself I, produced by Blondie’s early studio collaborator Richard Gottehrer. The result was her highest-charting album to that point, in the both the U.S. and at home in the U.K. Mindful of that success, and attuned to emerging genre of new wave music, Armatrading burrowed deeper into shimmering, shiny sounds. Most notably, she recruited a talented synthesizer player for her album Walk Under Ladders. One year before his debut album, The Golden Age of Wireless, Thomas Dolby brought his slick sonic oddities to Armatrading’s Walk Under Ladders.

Dolby’s pingy synths asset themselves right away on album opener “I’m Lucky,” Armatrading making it clear that she’s bending her music in this new direction. The album is filled with other guests. XTC’s Andy Partridge plays guitar on ballad “The Weakness in Me” and the enjoyably goofy “Eating the Bear.” And reggae heroes Sly Dunbar and bassist Robbie Shakespeare bring the rhythm to jazzy-cool “I Can’t Lie to Myself.” Regardless of the flourishes, Armatrading’s songwriting voice is strong and assertive throughout, keeping the album grounded in her potent skill. The cutting ballad “No Love” is emblematic: “Well if there’s anything I can do/ I wanna do it/ And if I had no love to give/ I wouldn’t give it to you.” As usual, Armatrading’s actual voice is splendid, too, prompting the New York Post to observe, “If Ella Fitzgerald can shatter crystal goblets with her voice, Joan Armatrading must be able to melt iron with heres.”

Producer Steve Lillywhite keeps the tracks cleans and crisp. He obviously takes it as his mandate to showcase Armatrading, certain her time had come. The breakthrough didn’t happen, especially in the U.S. Walk Under Ladders peaked far lower than its predecessor on the Billboard chart. Armatrading’s aspirations weren’t dashed. With her next album, she was still aiming for the mainstream. In the U.S., she got closer than she ever would again.

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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