College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #320 to #318

320. Meat Puppets, Up On the Sun (1985)

Any album describe as the “beer and pot” album in a band’s discography is sure to be a success on college radio, not that Meat Puppets necessarily needed the appeal of implied illicit substances to garner student programmer support by the time of their third full-length, Up On the Sun. The Arizona trio, comprised of brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood (on guitar and bass, respectively) and Derrick Bostrom (on drums), were one of the earliest breakthrough acts on SST Records, in part because they so quickly shifted their musical aesthetic from the pummeling punk that was most typical of their labelmates. The transformation started on their second album, Meat Puppets II, and was more or less complete on Up On the Sun, which is defined by tuneful, crafty rock songs that often play like a less blissed out version of post-psychedelic jamming.

The intricacy of the tracks, most giving sole songwriter credit to Curt Kirkwood, positions the band surprisingly close to jazz fusion. The cascading instrumental “Maiden’s Milk” is a prime example. They generally manage to steer the tracks away from that noodly area by engaging in an unofficial dialogue with other artists in the emerging, varied subgenre of college rock. “Away” is like flintier R.E.M., and the furtive “Buckethead” is in the Pylon zone. Meat Puppets largely pave the road for others rather that simply lapse into imitation, though. It’s not so much that they find great innovations as they display skilled craft while making songs that don’t seem to be aimed at cracking through the din to command attention. “Swimming Ground” is pleasant, easygoing, and expertly rendered, a song that’s ready to be discovered and adored, yet not all that pushy about its appeal. It’s a lowkey kind of greatness.

Every element locks into place across Up On the Sun. Curt Kickwood’s occasionally muttered vocals could feel like he’s sloughing off, but they instead suit the material, as on “Two Rivers,” with its burbling drift and hazy melody. His voices cedes ground to the splendidly frenetic instrumental interplay on “Enchanted Pork Fist” and asserts itself just a little more on the barbed, twisty “Creator,” making every cut feel like it emerged organically in its proper form. In a way, those tracks did largely appear complete; the album was recorded across only three days, at Total Access Recording, the house studio of SST. The album isn’t a collection of agonized-over rock offerings. It’s the effort of a workaday band, laying down tracks in between marathon jaunts on the road. It just so happened that Meat Puppets’ standard output was plainly better than what many artists could produce with weeks and months of studio time.

319. Echo & the Bunnymen, Songs to Learn & Sing (1985)

In the middle portion of the nineteen-eighties, artists who hailed from the U.K. and had their greatest stateside success on college radio were practically required to issue a singles compilation fairly early in their existence. Because singles and EPs were a far more viable option in U.K. record shops, many acts beloved by FCC-licensed undergraduates had some hits that weren’t readily available for purchase in the U.S., leading to the precocious collections. That trend serves as partial explanation for Echo & the Bunnymen’s Songs to Learn & Sing, but the record pulls quite a bit from predecessor LPs that were already fixtures in left-of-the-dial music libraries. Instead, the compilation was likely a placeholder, an indication that the band was struggling somewhat to follow the back-to-back successes with studio albums Porcupine and Ocean Rain. In an era when relentless productivity was a necessity for indie-inclined bands, extended gaps between new records was unacceptable.

As handy as it was for college broadcasters to have, say, “Rescue” and “The Killing Moon” on the same piece of vinyl, the main appeal of Songs to Learn & Sing must have been the cuts that were previously elusive. “The Puppet,” the third Echo & the Bunnymen single, is potent pop that sound like the bridge between Joy Division and INXS. “Never Stop,” previously a single-only release, showcases lead singer Ian McCulloch’s ability to infuse personality into his vocals, especially on the crooning chorus: “Measure by measure, drop by drop/ And pound for pound, we’re taking stock/ Of all the treasure still unlocked/ The love you found must never stop.” The value — and credibility — of the collection is further enhanced by the one track that is entirely new, “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” stands with the group’s best work, hardly a guarantee with a tag-on intended to force the completists to make a purchase. The song has a tension tremor that’s worthy of New Order, coupled with McCulloch’s sly vocal turn that’s somehow icy cool and emotionally evocative at the same time, intensified the directness of the lyrics (“First I’m gonna make it/ Then I’m gonna break it till it falls apart/ Hating all the faking/ And shaking while I’m breaking your brittle heart”).

On the mainstream U.S. charts, Songs to Learn & Sing performed like the stopgap it was, peaking at an unexciting #158 on the Billboard album chart. If interest in the band was waning, rescue was on the way in the form of the decade’s soundtrack boom and the filmmaker who had a soft spot for keening British pop. Because it was evidently fine accompaniment for trying on sunglasses, “Bring on the Dancing Horses” was plucked for the soundtrack of Pretty in Pink. The soundtrack album, like others assembled by Hughes and his team, was a hit, and eagerness for new Echo & the Bunnymen music was at a new peak. That new music, as it turned out, didn’t come easily.

318. Katrina and the Waves, Katrina and the Waves (1985)

In one scene of the 1986 film Pretty and Pink, Molly Ringwald is perched behind the counter of a maybe-too-hip record store. She flirts with Andrew McCarthy, playfully disparaging his taste in music by suggesting some Lionel Richie might be an appropriate choice for his next purchase, as Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses” plays. There are albums and posters among the set dressing, all meant to accentuate the coolness of the store. The Del-Lords’ Frontier Days is the “Pick of the Week,” and the 1985 self-titled album from Katrina and the Waves is prominently on display.

When guitarist Kimberley Rew was casting about for new creative outlets after his band the Soft Boys broke up, he reconnected with drummer Alex Cooper. Rew and Cooper had earlier been bandmates in the Waves, and Cooper invited Rew to join his then-current group Mama’s Cookin’, which specialized in cover songs. The band repurposed around Rew, bringing back the name the Waves and switching the set list to incorporate many of the original songs he brought with him. Rew usually handled lead vocal duties on his own songs, ceding the microphone to Katrina Leskanich for covers. Eventually, Rew decided keeping Leskanich up front was the better strategy, and he started penning songs that were suited to her strengths. Following a debut release as the Waves, the band underwent one more name change. Moving forward, they were Katrina and the Waves.

Rew, Leskanich, and their bandmates thought they had something that could have commercial appeal. The record labels weren’t convinced. They shopped demos to multiple labels, and the only taker was Attic Records, based in Canada. After two albums on Attic, extensive touring that built a fan base, and a little boost when up-and-coming group the Bangles scored a modest MTV hit with a cover of one of their songs, Katrina and the Waves were signed by Capitol Records and given the go-ahead to record new versions of their strongest sons. Producer Pat Collier, who worked in that capacity of Soft Boys records, was brought it to oversee the new polish and well-used goods. The new sheen gives a modern oomph to retro-tinged songs “Do You Want Crying,” “Cry for Me,” and “Going Down to Liverpool” (the latter is the tune borrowed by the Bangles). “Red Wine and Whisky” sounds like a less tough version of Lone Justice, and “Mexico” like a tougher version of Trini Lopez.

The first single from Katrina and the Waves is also the song that snared the band a permanent place in pop music history. The joyful, buoyant “Walking on Sunshine” was a major hit that was so omnipresent on MTV and radio that it’s downright reality-challenging to be reminded that it wasn’t a chart-topper. Instead, the single peaked at #9 on the Billboard chart, outpaced by, among others, the Mary Jane Girls. The song had quite an afterlife, cropping up regularly in commercials and other media, earning annual royalties for Rew (that he shared among his bandmates) into seven-figures until Rew sold off the rights to his whole songwriting catalogue for a cool ten million pounds. Katrina and the Waves released several more albums, never quite hitting the same level of chart success, though they did claim the top prize in the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest. Leskanich left the group one year later, and Katrina and the Waves disbanded not long after.

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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