College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #317 to #315

317. Violent Femmes, Hallowed Ground (1984)

“We’ve been betraying people since the second album,” Gordon Gano told the Orlando Sentinel a few years after the Violent Femmes’ sophomore release. “With every album, people come up to me and say things about ‘All my friends say you’ve sold out now.'”

The Milwaukee trio delivered a landmark album with their self-titled debut, released in 1983. Violent Femmes funneled youthful angst into jaunty art-folk songs, many of them flecked with genially ribald candidness about the messiness of desire. If the album didn’t exactly storm the pop charts. Almost twenty years passed before its initial appearance on the Billboard album chart. Even so, the devoted found it, reveling in its wincing celebration of the outcast feelings that swarm in during adolescence. Fans undoubtedly expected more of the same from the follow-up, another “Blister in the Sun” or two that they could wail along with. That’s not what they got with Hallowed Ground.

The second album from Violent Femmes feels like a massive departure, even a deliberate attempt to craft songs from a very different outlook. Hallowed Ground is steeped in the grimness of bygone folk songs, specifically the sort that found the inner menace of Bible stories or relayed tales of bleak happenings on farmsteads. In truth, the material on the album simply represents another side of songwriter Gordon Gano. The bulk of Hallowed Ground is made up from the same stockpile of songs, many written during Gano’s high school years, that the band drew from for their debut. The topics might be different, but the underlying sensibility is the same. Reeling from id-driven impulses is just a little more fun when it’s lamenting the unavailability of a solitary screw instead of hurling offspring into the the cavernous depths of a well. When record buyers dropped the needle on the first side of the album, they got the latter with “Country Death Song.”

They also got a whole lot of Gano’s religion. Raised by a father who opened a Milwaukee-area Baptist church and served as its minister, Gano was a devout believer, if one that allowed himself a carve-out to stray into the territory of the sinful (“I have wonderful thoughts and I have terrible thoughts… I’m not driven by desire to justify that,” Gano told an interviewer not long after the album’s release). Several songs on Hallowed Ground draw directly from scripture. The jabbing “It’s Gonna Rain” is about Noah, his big boat, and the deluge it anticipated (“Now who, who, who do you think I am?/ Well, I built this ark with Japheth, Shem, and Ham”), and “Jesus Walking on the Water” is…well, it’s pretty clear from the title what’s going on there. “Never Tell” touches on the theme more obliquely in the lyrics, but the music and playing captures the seething tension of Gano’s dueling inner motivation, his guitar playing, Brian Ritchie’s bass, and Victor DeLorenzo’s percussion building and building in intensity until the sound is a stunning cacophony at the end of the track.

The album sticks the base Violent Femmes sound while swerving freely in the lane. “I Hear the Rain” is plunky and wild, and “Sweet Misery Blues” takes direct inspiration from Lou Reed while adding a blissfully odd vaudevillian vibe. Hallowed Ground is dark and playful at the same time, and it left unprepared listeners baffled. For years, it was the clear reject of the band’s discography, out of print and devilishly hard to find. It’s also blazingly great, arguably the band’s best overall album.

316. Modern English, After the Snow (1982)

For their sophomore album, After the Snow, Modern English learned how to craft songs. Like many acts that formed in England during the late nineteen-seventies, they took their cues from punk acts and the sly reinventors of the form that followed. In the case of Modern English, that means they didn’t put too much thought into how a song was structured beyond working their way to different cool elements and assembling them in a relatively slapdash fashion. That approach can work — there are a lot of great singles and albums, particularly from that era, that were shaped by adrenalized instinct — but the quartet was open to becoming a more proper pop group. That’s where Hugh Jones came in.

Jones had recently produced sleek, appealing albums by Echo & the Bunnymen, the Sound, and the Undertones. He was brought in to fill the same capacity with Modern English and quickly challenged them to think about developing material beyond the first idea. After the Snow is no masterpiece, but it is definitely the product of musicians trying to stretch themselves. “Carry Me Down” is an interesting example, built on militaristic drums and an overall marching-song feel, almost like less edgy “Games Without Frontiers.” The embrace of polish leads naturally to the pursuit of a more pop-oriented sound, which occasionally betrays the song. “Someone’s Calling” is hopelessly bland, and “Life in the Gladhouse” is goth rock with the danger drained away.

A decent amount of the time, the new approach works. “Dawn Chorus” is gently luxuriant, and “Tables Turning” is sharp and forward-looking enough that, twenty years later, the Killers were able to built an entire career out of variations on the same sound. The inarguable apotheosis is “I Melt with You,” a swooning, stylish dazzler of pop-song mastery so far and above anything else the band had created — or would ever created — that they kept returning to it like the safe home base in game of tag, rerecording it over and over and over again in the decades to come.

After the Snow was a success, but it’s probably overstating it to call it a hit. Although “I Melt with You” is an enduring standard of nineteen-eighties pop, it peaked at a modest #78 on the Billboard chart at the time of its release. The album was eventually certified gold in the U.S., taking seven years to hit the requisite sales mark. Modern English saw a route to greater success. With subsequent albums, they made a concerted effort to travel that path.

315. George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Move It On Over (1978)

“Why should I write songs when Chuck Berry already wrote them all?” George Thorogood responded to a Rolling Stone reporter who asked about the dearth of original songs of the first two released albums the guitar slinger made with his backing band the Destroyers. “I’d rather learn to hit a curve ball to the opposite field.”

Chuck Berry is represented on Thorogood’s second album, Move It On Over. He and his crack blues rock–playing cohorts take a pass at “It Wasn’t Me,” proving only that the original can’t be topped. Maybe Berry’s lean, fierce rock ‘n’ roll was simply too close to what Thorogood and the Destroyers were up to, making the cover seem superfluous. Most of the songs on Move It On Over are plucked from the catalogs of more straight-ahead blues acts, or country act in the case of the Hank Williams–penned title cut, lending more purpose to Thorogood’s ever-so-slight rock-era updating. The band gives a sprightly reading to “Cocaine Blues” and the nifty guitar lark “New Hawaiian Boogie” (“Where you goin baby?/ Down to your sister’s place?/ What you got goin’ on down there?/ A boogie woogie dance?”). The reliance on covers inevitably gives the impression that this is the product of little more than a bar band, with a range that stretches all the way from gravelly guitar sound (“Who Do You Love?”) to murky guitar sound (“That Same Thing”), but, man alive, it’s a damn good bar band, full of bracing, raw fury.

Despite his protests, Thorogood did write some songs, and he was pretty good at that, too. Whether he ever managed to go the other way on a big bending pitch is unclear.

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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