College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #251 to #249

251. The Fixx, Phantoms (1984)

“Looking back, I think Phantoms was a dark, reflective album for us,” Cy Currin, lead singer of the Fixx, said of the group’s third studio album.

The British band was buoyed by success when they went into the studio for Phantoms. Their sophomore outing, Reach the Beach, was a hit, yielding three Billboard Top 40 singles and generally ushering the group into the the circles reserved for up-and-coming rock stars. They headlined big tours, had a prominent place on MTV playlists, and were invited to pitch in on other performers’ high-profile projects, such as Tina Turner’s comeback smash, Private Dancer. On Phantoms, they might have bought into their own hype, reaching for profound commentary that existing beyond the grasp of their plain pop capabilities. “Less Cities, More Moving People,” for example, has a restless, itchy energy as it offer confused commentary on the state of the world (“Is this what we call education/ Just watch the wheel of time revolve/ But why is this not what I’m thinking/ Just one mind and the unknown”). The song swallows itself.

Working as usual with producer Rupert Hine, the Fixx make all sorts of slick music. “Sunshine in the Shade” has ornate production, and “Woman on a Train” is weirdly hollowed-out synth rock, all sheen and no soul. Their tilts in the direction of more dance-friendly music are especially lacking: “In Suspense” stays stuck in a low gear, and “Phantom Living” is like an inert version of a Duran Duran ballad. The more the inner album rock band peeks through the gloss, the better the album is. “Are We Ourselves?” is the prime example of that, an anthemic puncher that became a hit. “Lost in Battle Overseas” is almost evocative of tracks cut by the Who in roughly the same period, though it’s an open question as to whether that’s a good thing.

Phantoms moved enough units in the U.S. to be certified gold, but that meant the Fixx were going in the wrong directions. The album only sold about half as much as its immediate predecessor. Before their next album, the Fixx thought a lot about how to reach the audience they were starting to lose.

250. The Style Council, My Ever Changing Moods (1984)

Paul Weller, Mick Talbot, and a rotating band of studio collaborators had already stirred up quite a bit of interest in the U.K. before they got to the business of recording their debut full-length. The British marketplace was more amenable to singles, so the Style Council had a string of chart successes through 1983, the year they started plying their smooth-groove wares. There was also a placeholder EP, Introducing: The Style Council, largely meant to assuage those music fans who didn’t like making their purchases one song at a time. It was time, though, for a full statement, so various crews of musicians and studio artisans convened at Weller’s Solid Bond Studios. The result was Café Bleu, released in the U.K. in March 1984.

As happened with some regularity with the Style Council, their U.S. label, Geffen Records, decided the album needed some slight reworking and promotionally minded repositioning before it crossed the Atlantic. When the U.S. release arrived a few months later, the album’s tracks were slightly reshuffled and the sleeve now bore the title My Even Changing Moods, taken from its slick lead single, which was included in its 12-inch version. The release still had an air of erudition that didn’t quite jibe with the marketplace that had recently elevated the dunderheaded Lionel Richie ballad “Hello” to the top of the chart, but at least record buyers in Topeka no longer needed to reckon with that acute accent in the original title.

“The first two to three years of the Style Council were full of excitement and exuberance,” keyboardist Talbot once reflected. “We had an attitude of wanting to try things even when people said ‘Don’t do it’ or ‘That’s not you.’ We took a risk and it was worth it, because it basically came off.”

There are times on the debut album when that compulsion for the unexpected is clear as can be, especially in the contrast to the already iconic songs of Weller’s previous band, the Jam. The Style Council is thrillingly successful when updating classic U.K. Northern soul, as heard on the jubilant “A Solid Bond in Your Heart” and even the more smoking-jacket pop number “You’re the Best Thing.” They can also go too cool: “Blue Café” lapses into easy listening, and it’s not all that appealing. Weller insisted he had only a passing acquaintance with jazz, mostly through osmosis from the listening habits of family members. That doesn’t prevent him from reasonably aping the form on “Dropping Bombs on the Whitehouse” and “Mick’s Blessing,” the latter of which approaches the sprightly intricacy of prime Vince Guaraldi.

Explorations can lead to mistakes. On “A Gospel,” the Style Council brings in Dizzy Hite to lay down a rap on some clumping techno. That there are more dire examples of pop acts giving this newfangled rap thing a whirl doesn’t mean the cut isn’t regrettable on its own terms. Even when the risks basically come off, as Talbot assessed, there are exceptions. The Style Council deserves credit for taking the risks in the first place.

249. Supertramp, Breakfast in America (1979)

Ten years after their formation, Supertramp found themselves with a massive hit. The U.K. band enjoyed reasonable success with most of their nineteen-seventies output, but their sixth studio album was a whole other matter. By the time they started to work on the record, all the band members had relocated to California, and they had secured a Burbank locale that could serve as a creative haven and a working space. By all accounts, they were influence by their new locale: the constant sunshine, the pervasive aspiration to celebrity, the resounding Americanness of it all.

In something of a departure from previous procedure, Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson, who shared keyboard, lead vocal, and songwriting duties in the band, worked on material separately and convened to see how the tunes might fit together. They came to think of the album as a conversation between two individuals, with their songs largely alternating on the track list. For that reason, Davies suggested the album title could be taken from his composition “Goodbye Stranger.” Hodgson was lukewarm on that track, maybe because it’s definitely an outlier on the album, sounding like the product of an alternate-universe Bob Seger who was raised on bombastic British pop. Given the contentiousness that had recently crept into the pair’s relationship, Hodgson was probably also disinclined to give Davies the small win of a title cut. So the group settled on an album title that both reflected their recent collective change in residency and spoke to their feeling that most of the tracks they recorded were light and fun. The album was called Breakfast in America.

The album was a smash, logging six weeks on top of the Billboard album chart and landing three singles in the Top 40. The official chart positions of those songs downplay their pervasiveness, because Breakfast in America was a staple of album rock radio, a format reaching its tipping point in broadcast prominence but still without an official chart in the kingmaker trade publication. The brightly theatrical “The Logical Song,” carnivalesque title cut, and loping “Take the Long Way Home” joined “Goodbye Stranger” in constant rotation on AOR stations, and all those songs would remain fixtures for years to come.

The hooky effectiveness of the album’s hits is almost undeniable. The other cuts are mostly a procession of the worst rock ideas of the era. “Lord Is It Mine” in an unbearably gooey ballad (“If only I could find a way to feel your sweetness through the day/ The love that shines around me could be mine”), “Just Another Nervous Wreck” has a spine of tinny synths that build to yammering pop opera cacophonies, and “Casual Conversations” takes on the tepid water of soft jazz. Album closer “Child of Vision” is a seven-minute salad of every loose idea they can generate, resulting in a patience-tester that than only be termed prog pop.

In a familiar rock ‘n’ roll story, the gift of commercial dominance came with a monkey’s-paw curse. The distance that had developed between Davies and Hodgson only grew, and the band’s next album, 1982’s …Famous Last Words…, found them in complete disagreement about the band’s creative direction. Hodgson left the group not long after, never to return. There were several Supertramp albums and tours that followed. Interest dwindled rapidly. The dizzying pinnacle of Breakfast in America would never be approached again.

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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