College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #269 to #267

269. The Greg Kihn Band, Rockihnroll (1981)

Years after the release of Rockihnroll, the man who wedged his last name into the middle of its punny title reflected on the album with about the level of nuance and insight that anyone with a passing familiarity with his oeuvre should expect.

 “I have such fond memories of recording this album at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley,” Greg Kihn wrote on his website. “Musically and songwriting-wise I was hitting my peak and the band was the tightest its ever been. We were touring constantly and playing live almost every night so the band were like well-oiled machine at this point. THE BREAKUP SONG became our first big hit and suddenly we were making some Money. I bought a Ferrari-red Alfa Romeo GTV6 Balocco and that thing was fast! I tooled around Berkley like a maniac, getting tickets and acting like a fool. What a blast!”

Kihn is at least correct in which track to single out in his reminiscence. “The Breakup Song (They Don’t Write ‘Em)” is without dispute the highlight of the album. It’s a tightly constructed, expertly played pop song, twining heartbreak and nostalgia in a way that feels weirdly triumphant. It was understandably a hit, the first time the Greg Kihn Band muscled their way into the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at a respectable #15. The remainder of Rockihnroll is characteristically middlebrow, a few tracks stirring up a mild flare of curiosity and most of the material humming along pleasantly like jukebox offerings that fade into the background behind barroom chatter and the clicking of pool balls. Kihn and his cohorts were six albums in, the records released to this point on a yearly basis. There was no reason to expect wholesale reinvention.

Kihn is right in the pocket of his era on the album. “Womankind” has some squonky guitar play reminiscent of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and a set of lyrics that offer some the clumsiest feminism ever committed to song (“When you’re a woman, try to be strong/ But where does it come from when everything’s gone?/ It comes from inside you, you’ll use it again/ ‘Cause woman are people, the same as the men”). “When the Music Starts” could be a castoff from a looser Glass Houses, and “Trouble in Paradise” is simply a pretty good rock song. A cozy cover of Tommy Roe’s 1962 hit “Sheila” is about as clear a statement as to who Kihn was as an artist: suitable and just charming enough to get by.

268. Aztec Camera, Knife (1984)

Roddy Frame, the lead creative force behind Aztec Camera, had just crossed out of his teenaged years when the band got down to work on their sophomore album, Knife. Although deluged with praise as a pop prodigy, Frame still understood the value in recruiting strong collaborators who would occasionally press him to dart off in directions that were unfamiliar to him. He also had a keen enough sense that it would be useful to work with someone who could fill in the gaps in his own knowledge.

“I wanted someone good at the controls, someone who was a good overseer and had good ideas,” Frame said of bring in Mark Knopfler, the frontman of Dire Straits, to serve as producer on Knife.

A British music press that wasn’t especially enamored with Dire Straits at the time pegged the selection as an odd one. Frame countered that he was fond of the music Knopfler crafted for Bill Forsyth’s film Local Hero and his production work on Bob Dylan’s 1983 album, Infidels. The implicit argument was that not everything Knopfler touched turned into “Sultans of Swing.” There was reason to believe Knopfler would elevate Aztec Camera without being needlessly intrusive with his own stylistic predalictions.

On the evidence of what resides in the grooves of Knife, Knopfler might have nosed his way in a little more than is ideal. Frame’s instinctual pop-craft remains in place, but there’s a little bit of noodling bloat at times, most notably on the title cut, nine minutes of languid pop that is dozy without being dreamy. To be fair, the planned excess of “Knife” was one of the prompts that got Frame thinking Knopfler was the right man for the job; the Dire Straits fulfilled a request rather than imposed himself in unwanted fashion.

More often, the material benefits from the kind of chilly sweep that was Knopfler primary proficiency. “Still On Fire” is jagged and swingy, and “All I Need Is Everything” puts a burbling electronic rhythm to a yearning grandiosity (“I wish myself into your arms/ To know that all I need is everything”). As if specifically confirming Frame’s status as a budding master of absurdly catchy song, “Just Like the USA” is reminiscent of the very best of Squeeze. Elsewhere, the sleek, acoustic-based number “The Birth of the True” forecasts where Frame would take the band a few years later, after he’d receded somewhat from more eager stabs at chart success.

Knife was another success for Aztec Camera, which really meant it was another success for Frame. Following the tour to support the album, original bassist Campbell Owens was out of the group, which made Frame that only remaining member from Aztec Camera’s beginning. By the band’s next album, Love, Aztec Camera was basically a band in name only.

267. B-52’s, Wild Planet (1980)

The B-52’s were ready for their sophomore album. Their 1979 self-titled debut was a blast of jubilant music that was both cunningly retro and ferociously futuristic. The Athens, Georgia quintet hadn’t nearly exhausted their supply of original material on that LP. They deliberately held back several songs that were club-proven winners. Given their vibe, it would have been easy for music fans and critics to dismiss the B-52’s as pure novelty if there was any quality drop-off from the first album to the second. There wasn’t.

Wild Planet starts with “Party Out of Bounds,” a wickedly clever inversion of the expected song of celebration that riffs on boozy get-togethers that fall apart: “Crashers get bombed, slobs make a mess/ You know sometimes they’ll even ruin your wife’s dress.” The B-52’s established that they’re prepared to give everyone the rousing, ricocheting songs they expect, but those songs are going to simultaneously defy expectations.

Runnin’ Around” reverberates with a jabbing certainty, and “Private Idaho” is a sonic joyride. “Strobe Light” is so delirious horny that it’s downright combustible (“Pulsin’ light goes to my head!/ Everything I see is red!/ Baby, when I kiss your hair/ I feel electricity in the air”). “Quiche Lorraine” is infectious as it offers a canine metaphor for romantic devotion thwarted, exemplifying the band’s almost uncanny ability to craft material that sounds like it was beamed in from across the galaxy while still being deeply grounded in recognizable humanity. Then there’s something like “Give Me Back My Man,” which is simply a perfectly constructed pop song.

The B-52’s were a bright, boisterous outfit that grabbed attention with audacious garb and towering hairdos. When there was a real risk that they’d be seen a little more than a passing gimmick, Wild Planet demonstrated that they were a phenomenal band.

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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