308. Utopia, Adventures in Utopia (1979)
Utopia was regarded as the side project Todd Rundgren started to give him and some like-minded cohorts a chance to make highly experimental music, separate from the commercial expectations tied to Rundgren’s solo outings. At the genesis of things, that was largely true. Several years later, all involved acknowledged that Utopia eventually made feints in the direction of whatever was happening on the pop charts.
“We were always conscious of what was big and successful,” Todd Rundgren noted when reminiscing about the creation of Adventures in Utopia, the band’s fourth studio album. “I remember going to see Boston at Madison Square Garden after their first big album came out. The whole idea of being a musician is the careful absorption of select influences. It was a mode of music that we could deal with and feel somewhat comfortable with.”
Utopia might have been able to absorb and rejigger what was big and successful, but that doesn’t mean they did so without their irritable insurrectionist instincts fully intact. “The Very Last Time” is kindred to the hollowed-out bombast of Boston and Kansas, those dueling pop-rock tyrants with bland, geographically derived names, and yet it also stands apart, seemingly to offer snarky judgment of the very style it’s mastered. That’s basically the Utopia model: like Frank Zappa’s pop spoofery without the lapses into exhaustingly florid guitar workouts.
“You Make Me Crazy” rides the early crest of new wave (“You know you make me crazy/ What you do to me/ It’s a chemical reaction or an allergy/ You know you make me crazy”), and “Rock Love” is the inevitable disco goof (“Let me be your protection/ Keep the vampires off your neck”). Utopia can render a weirdly chintzy pop symphony, on “The Road to Utopia,” or pepper in glammy fuzz guitars, on “Caravan,” making it all sound like it comes as naturally to them as whistling a tune that’s taken up lifelong residence in the memory. The offhand ambition has a tendency to overwhelm the material, too. “Love Alone” is a ballad that puts grating synths awkwardly against gospel-tinged, doo-wop backup vocals, and “Shot in the Dark” feels like its ineffectively sputtering out five different ideas at once. It’s no surprise that the plainest song on the album — “Set Me Free” — was also the most successful, reaching the Billboard Top 40, the only incursion to that consensus measure of pop success in Utopia’s career.
Adventures in Utopia ever so slightly cracked open the vault door behind which mainstream success beckoned. Utopia’s very next album slammed that door shut with a deafening clang.
307. Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked (1988)
Michelle Shocked initially became a recording artist without her knowledge. Just a couple years after the electrified stage name was adopted by the woman born and raised Karen Michelle Johnston, the upbringing largely taking place in East Texas and under the oppressive stricture of the Mormon church, a group of people sat around a campfire at the Kerrville Folk Festival. Shocked played her guitar and sweetly warbled a few of her original compositions. All the while, a British fellow named Pete Lawrence recorded her on his Walkmen. Lawrence had recently cofounded the label Cooking Vinyl, and he took his cassette copy of Shocked’s performance, gave it the slightest polish, and released it as an album called The Texas Campfire Tapes. He didn’t bother telling Shocked this was happening. She didn’t find out about the record until it was already a small sensation in the U.K., sitting atop the indie album chart. Jolted from anonymity to a proven — if esoteric — chart success, Shocked signed a deal with Polygram Records.
For her sophomore album and major label debut, Shocked was partnered with producer Peter Anderson, who’d produced the first few Dwight Yoakam records at that point. Short Sharp Shocked is clearly the product of the same keenly observant songwriter found on The Texas Campfire Tapes, and yet the album is proudly expansive, with only the rare track — such as “Memories of East Texas” — truly evoking the spare, twilight folk chiming that started her professional trek. “When I Grow Up” burbles with warped rock wiles, and “If Love Was a Train” has a deep, bluesy groove. “V.F.D.” has a thumping certainty as it recounts childhood carelessness while playing with matches, requiring emergency intervention by local firefighters (“Close our eyes and count to ten/ And then race the burning field/ Doing the toe and heel/ We’d die laughing and do it all over again”). Shocked’s gift for melding emotionally piquant storytelling is best realized on the single “Anchorage,” framed around correspondence with an old friend who’s relocated to “the largest state in the union.”
Around the time of the album’s release, Shocked suggested her skill with crafting tunes was being put to the service of spreading her anarchist-inclined beliefs to the masses. Her worldview crops up here and there on Short Sharp Shocked, including on “Graffiti Limbo,” which Shocked explicitly states is written about Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who was beaten to death by New York transit police officers. Mostly, though, she wanted to pad the population of those exposed to the patter she dropped in between songs while playing on stage.
“The point of all this for me is to get people to the live shows and spit my two cents worth of politics,” Shocked told Spin not long after the album’s release.
Those couple of pennies picked up heavy tarnish as time went by. Though Shocked was embraced by the LGBTQ+ community early in her career — and she definitely nodded to and sometimes actively courted that fan base — her outlook took a hard right turn into hate a couple decades later. Her anticapitalist diatribes were replaced by homophobic bigotry, alienating a sizable chunk of her already dwindling fan base.
306. The Dream Syndicate, Medicine Show (1984)
The Days of Wine and Roses, the debut album by L.A. band the Dream Syndicate, was the sort of attention-getter than made music executives suspect the next big thing had been found. All that was needed was a little coaching. A&M Records signed the Dream Syndicate and gave them ample time, space, and money to work on a follow-up. Sandy Pearlman, the regular knob-twiddler for Blue Öyster Cult, was brought in to produce the album, and the band worked for almost half a year on the recording process, setting foot in at least three different studios. At a time when Meat Puppets were laying down two long-playing sides in the equivalent of a long weekend, the Dream Syndicate taking that wholly reasonable amount of time to refine and layer the tracks might as well have been Guns N’ Roses making Chinese Democracy.
To the degree that fans were privy to the details of the Dream Syndicate’s recording process, they took umbrage with the approach. The reflexive railing against supposed inauthenticity of bands taking advantage of professional opportunities is as tried-and-true a part of rock ‘n’ roll as the 4/4 backbeat. Early trepidation was validated for many when Medicine Show hit record shops, and it sounded distinctly different from its revered predecessor. Steve Wynn, the frontman for the Dream Syndicate, maintained that the departure was what he felt the band owed listeners, even if those listeners might have been pining for a repeat of what they glommed onto in the first place.
“It’s a very different record from Days of Wine and Roses, which, at that point, was what I thought you were supposed to do,” Wynn later said. “I came from a nineteen-seventies rock aesthetic, where the coolest thing you could do was to do different things every time out. I was a fan of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and David Bowie, who would surprise me every time.”
Despite the indie uproar, Medicine Show is a fairly mild surprise. Mostly, it simply sounds like the product of rock band deliberately taking the next step in a sonic evolution, somewhat akin to R.E.M.’s adoption of a more muscular sound on Lifes Rich Pageant (an album that stirred its own fair share of acrimony from stunted fans who wanted Murmur over and over again). “Still Holding on to You” showcases Wynn’s shrewd songwriting with some chewy guitar licks, and “Armed with an Empty Gun” is lean and tough.
The jammy expansiveness that was always built into the Dream Syndicate aesthetic takes on a different heft on Medicine Show. The title cut is like one of the country death songs Violent Femmes were trying out around that time, and “John Coltrane Stereo Blues” snarls with lurking menace (“Oh I might have said something sometime/ But I don’t care what I might have said”). While clearly constructed with art and care, the cuts on Medicine Show all have a tremor of welling chaos within them. The album feels poised to exploded at any time, its strong rock trappings making it reminiscent of the work of fellow Angelenos X, albeit without the earned punk credentials grafted onto every resounding chord.
Because the most common reactions to Medicine Show could be cluster-charted on a spectrum that ran from disappointed to scornful, practically all plans anyone had for the Dream Syndicate were tossed into the dustbin. A&M dropped them, and individual band members started exploring other career options. By all appearances, the band was over. That proved to not be the case. Wynn, it turned out, had a few more surprises left.
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.