College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #260 to #258

260. David Bowie, Scary Monsters (1980)

As the nineteen-eighties dawned, David Bowie was arguably the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll artiste. Bowie was coming off a trio of studio albums — Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger, which he had taken to referring to collectively as the Berlin Trilogy — that were widely acclaimed and already proving to be extremely influential among his more avant-garde peers and artistic descendants. There was also a growing perception that Bowie was faltering as a commercial force, especially in the U.S. On the Billboard charts, the albums failed to approach the same peaks as his mid–nineteen-seventies, and none of their singles made the Top 40. When Bowie assembled his team to record the follow-up studio album, Scary Monsters, he announced his intention to aim for more listener-friendly fare. That plan was also driven by a something of a personal turnaround: After years of drug abuse, Bowie was relatively clean and more clear-headed than he’d been in some time.

“There was a certain degree of optimism making that album, because I’d worked through some of my problems, I felt very positive about the future, and I think I just got down to writing a really comprehensive and well-crafted album,” Bowie later said.

He didn’t really get down to the writing part until he was actually in the studio, specifically the Power Station, in New York City. He sent out the beacon for Tony Visconti, his regular producing partner, with the promise that there was a raft of new material to hear. Instead, Visconti arrived to find Bowie had nearly nothing prepped. Bowie hoped to hash out ideas in the studio. That technique aligned imperfectly with the goal of appealing to the masses, as evidenced by the album bookends: “It’s No Game (No. 1)” features Bowie howling and hollering in abstract conversation with rapidly enunciated spoken-word bits by Japanese actress Michi Hirota, and “It’s No Game (No. 2)” chains together a chunka-chunka groove with a swinging vibe that might, or might not, be ironic. Both tracks are endlessly fascinating, and they are miles away from the driving disco, thunkingly obvious rock, and syrup-slathered balladry that had a fighting change on the pop charts circa 1980.

In other spots on the album, Bowie is squarely in the pocket while still engaged in ruthless experimentation. “Fashion” is sizzling dance track that challenges with its icy European precision, and “Ashes to Ashes” swirls spring-boing tones among grand-panache pop while demolishing the theatrical mythology of his earlier hit “Space Oddity” (“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie”). “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)” veers into novelty territory with its jabbering vocals and general air of willful strangeness. All three of those tracks became beloved standards in the Bowie songbook, which is less a marker of their immediate appeal and more of how thoroughly ahead of their time they were.

As would continue to be the case from then on out, Bowie’s propensity for excess sometimes gets the betters of him. “Teenage Wildlife” is simply too much song, pushing into the operatic rock saga vein mined so thoroughly by Bruce Springsteen while still reverberating with Bowie’s distinct interlocutor-across-dimensions splendor. Perhaps more than any artist, Bowie — at the time, anyway — could induce gasps of admiration even when skirting creative failure.

After Scary Monsters, Bowie moved into a period where he largely turned to endeavors outside of making music, notably a stream of acting gigs that included a stage production of The Elephant Man and director Tony Scott’s lurid vampire flick, The Hunger. Three years passed before he released his next studio album. As it turned out, that record was the smash Bowie had been hunting for.

259. Housemartins, London 0 Hull 4 (1986)

“When I was between fifteen and twenty, when I was just a fan, the standard of music was just so high,” Paul Heaton opined not long after the release of London 0 Hull 4, the debut album of his band the Housemartins. “And that was particularly true of the independent music scene. But the main inspiration to the Housemartins, or to me anyway, over the past couple of years has been the low standard of the scene. I consider it really low. A few years back, there were loads of bands as good as us.”

Heaton and his bandmates clearly weren’t lacking in confidence as their first LP rolled out. That swagger could have been insufferable, that is if the Housemartins didn’t clearly have the goods. The pop songs on London 0 Hull 4 glimmer with such bright invention that they virtually have a sheen of morning dew across them. Album opener, and quick U.K. hit, “Happy Hour” is so joyously brisk, it’s like the crisply British version of the Feelies. “Get Up Off Our Knees” pops like a string of firecrackers, and “Anxious” improbably conjures up a snappy singalong out of lyrics about irritation with social malaise (“I really thought I’d have my tongue ties if I stood up to shout/ But all they did was listen without their ears/ And I thought I’d be beheaded if I stuck my neck out/ But they just gave me a hanky for my tears”).

In general, the Housemartins display an uncommon expertise for delivering biting commentary in a with a sugary, hard-candy shell. “Sheep” is bouncy as can be as Heaton calls his fellow citizens to task: “Sometimes I get so angry with the simple life they lead/ The shepherd’s smile seems to confirm my fears/ And they’ve never questioned anything, never disagreed/ Sometimes I think they must have wool in their ears.” The album is packed with the delightful incongruity of extreme cynicism rendered as elegant pop, whether the tingly ballad “Think for a Minute” or the bah-bah-bahing hullabaloo “We’re Not Deep.” The material toughens up occasionally, as on “Freedom,” which has a thudding backbeat that suggests a shinier descendent of the Animals. Mostly, though, the Housemartins made the likes of Prefab Sprout and Aztec Camera sound like ruffian garage bands in comparison.

Heaton might have been right that there were loads of bands as good as the Housemartins in the early nineteen-eighties, as there were realistic plenty of worthy music-makers among their immediate contemporaries. In the glow of London 0 Hull 4, it’s easy to become convinced, however briefly, that they were indeed peerless.

258. Nick Lowe, Labour of Lust (1979)

The executives at Columbia Records had opinions about Nick Lowe’s sophomore solo album. The major label had recently inked a distribution deal with Radar Records, Lowe’s business home back in the U.K., and it hadn’t exactly yielded significant sales stateside. Lowe was a particularly vexing artist. He had undeniable skills as a songwriter and crafter of pop songs, and he carried some cachet as the producer of Elvis Costello’s revered early albums. He also repelled comfortable marketing methods. Both his scruffy demeanor and his instinct for easygoing provocation surely left the public relations department feeling exasperated. The title of his brilliant 1978 solo debut, Jesus of Cool, surely prompted a few panicked memos. For the North American market, the album was retitled Pure Pop for Now People, an example of empty sloganeering that understandable stirred only the barest interest.

For the follow-up, the Columbia A&R rep charged with working with Lowe made a suggestion. He liked a tune called “Cruel to Be Kind” that Lowe had written and recorded as a demo with his earlier band Brinsley Schwarz. Lowe wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of taking a pass as the older song (and he reported his Rockpile bandmates who played on the record were even more grumbly about it), but he acquiesced. It paid to play nice. “Cruel to Be Kind” became his first — and remains his most significant — U.S. hit, peaking at #12 on the Billboard chart.

“Cruel to Be Kind” is a dandy rock ‘n’ roll song, and the same can be asserted about every other cut on the album that holds it, Labour of Lust. “Skin Deep” is sly and tuneful, and “Dose of You” sets the template the likes of Tommy Keene, Steve Wynn, and other bottomless wells of singer-songwriter ambrosia that followed. Lowe threads in sonic variety through the album: a little touch of country-western on “Without Love” and a hambone shuffle dappled with nineteen-seventies Beefheartian weirdo fringes on “Big Kick, Plain Scrap” hambone shuffle. Lowe doesn’t push the boundaries too awfully far, preferring to punch out more of that pure pop. That earlier Columbia-mandated title — or retitle — might have been drab, but it wasn’t wrong.

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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