College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #299 to #297

299. Iggy Pop, Instinct (1988)

Iggy Pop was long a revered figure to those who rightly knew him as the Godfather of Punk. Unofficial honorifics don’t necessarily sell records, though. His underwhelming chart performance was enough of a damper on his finances that his good friend David Bowie took it upon himself to cover Pop’s songs, knowing the songwriter royalties had a chance of keeping the underappreciated icon solvent. Then Pop had a breakthrough with more mainstream audiences. His 1986 album, Blah-Blah-Blah, got generous play on album-rock radio and MTV. Though it technically peaked lower on the Billboard album chart than Pop’s 1977 solo debut, The Idiot, the later album spent twice as long on the chart and was roundly considered a hit. Blah-Blah-Blah was Pop’s first album with A&M Records, and the label was eager for a follow-up, especially once Pop committed to working again with Steve Jones, the former Sex Pistols guitarist who meshed especially well with Pop on “Cry for Love,” a successful single off Blah-Blah-Blah.

The album Pop emerged with was not what the label hand in mind. Rather than building on the slick converge of guitar power and dance rhythms (“Cry for Love” made it into the Top 20 on Billboard‘s Hot Dance/Disco chart) that brought Pop to the cusp of commercial acceptance, Instinct leaned into a hard rock sound. Given the pedigrees of Pop and Jones, the approach is promising on paper. It’s mystifyingly unimpressive in execution. Instinct takes the sleek bombast of nineteen-eighties commercial heavy metal and somehow drains it of all life.

The album kicks off with “Cold Metal,” which is entirely emblematic in its generic grind. It’s largely variations on the theme from there, with Jones contributing plasticized hard-rock guitar and Pop’s snarling out nonsense words. On “Strong Girl,” Pop howls, “I need a strong girl/ Who works on tension/ I need a gendarme/ Cause I’m after ascension,” and then he tops himself in absurdity with “Tom Tom” and its perplexing lines “Pure love, sunshine/ Our love is always fine/ We are related, you know/ I’ll take my tom tom and go.” “Squarehead” comes across as Pop living up to a self-delivered dare create the rock lyrics that sound like the result of the telephone game being conducted through amateur translators going from one language to another with every turn: “You can make me super Styrofoam/ You can make me feel all alone/ You can stuff hamburger in my head/ But I ain’t gonna be no squarehead.”

It’s a mark of the confusion pressed into the grooves of Instinct that Pop, as distinctive a performer as rock ‘n’ roll has ever had, comes close to getting completely lost in the swarm of empty guitar machismo. He’s almost buried by the incessant riffs of “Power and Freedom” and is similarly overwhelmed by the manipulated chords of “Lowdown,” a track that is the hard-rock equivalent of biting down on aluminum foil. Anyone could be at the microphone on cuts likes these.

Displeased with Instinct once they heard it, A&M slashed the planned promotional budget and made it clear that they’d engages in the same sort of belt-tightening when it came time to record Pop’s next album. Not long after, Pop and A&M agreed to part ways. It wasn’t the first time Pop was adrift professionally. In this instance, he’d find his way to a far more understanding corporate home that would, among other benefits, help him to his first, and only, trip to the Top 40.

298. Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense (1984)

“I go to a lot of concerts,” director Jonathan Demme told L.A. Weekly around the time that the performance film Stop Making Sense was released. “This was the one time I came out thinking obsessively about getting this thing on film.”

Talking Heads were touring in support of their fifth studio album, Speaking in Tongues, at the time. They presumably wouldn’t have been compelled to document their latest in-concert efforts if Demme hadn’t come calling, because the seemingly definitive live double-album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads had immediately preceded the studio effort they were on the road with. This was an unexpected opportunity to capture their evolving visual dynamics, though, something frontman David Byrne was — and still is — eager to do. The dictates of the music business meant there would also be an accompanying album, especially in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, the absolute peak of the symbiotic promotion of movies and soundtrack albums. The movie Stop Making Sense is a masterpiece, routinely celebrated as the paragon of its form. The accompanying album is no afterthought. It is neck and neck with the subsequent studio effort Little Creatures for the designation of the top-selling album in Talking Heads’ catalog.

There’s nothing all that revelatory about the album Stop Making Sense. Songs are not so much reinvented as perfected. “Psycho Killer” is leaner and tougher, and “Burning Down the House” thumps with stunning menace and intent. Familiar favorites “Once in a Lifetime” and “Life During Wartime” are rendered expertly, accentuating the fundamental strength they always carried. Byrne works vocal magic on “Swamp” and slices through the glorious cacophony raised by the band, expanded from the core quartet with ludicrously talented touring musicians, on “Girlfriend Is Better.” If there’s no standout on the record, that’s only because every cuts is an equal towering peak. That noted, it’s worth singling out “What a Day That Was” as tight, tense evidence that bassist Tina Weymouth is the true MVP of Talking Heads.

Stop Making Sense was a modest commercial success as a film upon its initial release, earning around $5 million at the box office, a little less than No Small Affair and a little more than Harry & Son. Undoubtedly boosted by home video, then enjoying explosively popularity, the album became a chart mainstay. On the way to its double-platinum certification, Stop Making Sense spent more than two years on the Billboard chart.

297. Fishbone, Truth and Soul (1988)

Fishbone was a party band. That much was clear from their first couple releases. Their second full-length studio album, Truth and Soul, demonstrated that they could channel that same raucous energy into songs of greater substance. To a degree, the band went into the album intending to prove exactly that.

Guitarist Kendall Jones was reportedly stung by criticism that Fishbone’s earlier attempts to offer social commentary were deemed cartoonish. He and his cohorts didn’t want to shirk away from the social dilemmas that were hitting their community especially hard. Instead, they found a way to stay true to themselves while still tamping down the earlier work’s boisterous sense of humor so as not to distract from what they were trying to say. As if giving themselves an inspirational template, the band opens the album with a colossal-sounding cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead.” This raw tale of junkie tragedy is fierce and colorful without being overly reductive or blithely jokey. Fishbone could dance through the minefield being serious and funky at the same time.

Ma and Pa” is terrifically antic while being bruisingly honest about the repercussions while a family is hit by divorce (“It’s not just a fight for child custody/ ‘Cause ma and pa’s revenge is making little sister bleed/ Fussin’ and fightin’ through a family life/ Make her wanna take drugs and be out of line”) and the punk-tinged “Subliminal Fascism” is as accurate an assessment of the Reagan era as any band ever raged out (“The plan is subtle but it’s in the open/ Kingpins Nazi scheme getting under your skin/ So you better wake up, U.S.”). The anger doesn’t blunt the energy. If anything, Fishbone goes bigger, louder, more furious because they have something meatier to offer, whether the horn-spattered protest song “Ghetto Soundwave” or the jubilant celebration of camaraderie and endurance “Mighty Long Way.” They still occasionally skirt of the edge of deliberate buffoonery that prompted earlier criticism, as on the cowpunk-adjacent “Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party),” which dabbles with unsubtle, fury-fueled satire (“Stricken with determination to rise above a slave/ The mayo men used firehoses/ To spray the monkeys back in their cages/ To spray the monkeys back in their cages”).

There are thrilling explorations all across Truth and Soul. Fishbone prove equally capable at the slow grind funk “Pouring Rain” and the hard-rock blast “Deep Inside.” The cut “One Day” simultaneously evokes the Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, and Kool and the Gang. Not that many bands can pull of that sort of trifecta. In this context, it’s a bit of a letdown to come up the the blazing simplicity of “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” the closest the band comes to repeating the good-time ribaldry that first earned them airplay on college radio the first place (“It’s a great groove, and it’s all about making babies” is how lead singer Angelo Moore sums up the song). The track is enjoyable on its own terms — and, I can attest, works pretty great on a party mix tape when student broadcasters convene for off-hours mischief — but the comparative lack of ambition makes it seem needless and inconsequential. In a deeply compelling way, thoughts about the challenge of living at ground zero were now more compelling than the diversionary party.

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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