College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #248 to #246

248. Culture Club, Colour By Numbers (1983)

Culture Club made a hit record with their 1982 debut, Kissing to Be Clever. Early beneficiaries of MTV attention, there was no guarantee they’d be able to repeat the achievement with their follow up. A certain subset of close-minded music fans were actively rooting against them, and enough of the initial attention afforded to the group was inarguably driven by curiosity over the more superficial bits and pieces, mainly the androgyny of lead singer Boy George and the overall adoption of ticklish club trappings. If there was a suspicion that the novelty might wear off quickly, Culture Club were determined to show that they were more than a fashionable flash in the pan.

“This next album is going to prove that we’re very musical,” Boy George told The Tube a few months before the release of Culture Club’s sophomore album, Colour By Numbers. “It’s a lot more mature and sophisticated than Kissing To Be Clever. We work very closely with Steve Levine, who is almost the fifth member of Culture Club. We all have the same idea of what we want the end result to be, which is essentially a well-structured pop song, and we have developed our own sound now.”

Levine was the producer who helped define the Culture Club sound on their first album, and he was similarly engaged in their leap to the next level. “It’s a Miracle” and “Church of the Poison Mind” are the kind of smoothly polished pop songs that demonstrated the immense value that could come out of the studio wizardry that became increasingly common as the nineteen-eighties rolled on. Enhanced by astounding back vocals by auxiliary Culture Club member Helen Terry, “That’s the Way (I’m Only Trying to Help You)” is absolutely lovely, anticipating the pop symphonies George Michael started churning out a few years later, and “Victims” does the same with a stately ache.

Impressively, Colour By Numbers routinely strives for bold variations in style while maintaining the core Culture Club sound. “Changing Every Day” has a jazzy vibe that’s a particularly good match with Boy George’s velvety vocals, and “Miss Me Blind” is a lithe, convincing dance track. The jabbering, swooping “Karma Chameleon” is arguably the album’s only example of the band standing pat with what worked for them previously, so it was naturally the biggest hit single of the lot. It was their first and only chart-topper in the U.S.

Colour By Numbers moved a lot of units, earning quadruple platinum status in the U.S. At least for the moment, Culture Club successfully proved they had the stuff to stick around longer than their detractors suspected.

247. Linda Ronstadt, Mad Love (1980)

Producer Peter Asher bought tickets for himself, Linda Ronstadt, and several of their usual musical collaborators to go see an up and comer named Elvis Costello play a concert at Hollywood High. Guitarist Danny Kortchmar introduced Asher to the brash, bespectacled singer-songwriter only a couple weeks earlier, following an impulse buy of My Aim Is True, Costello’s debut album. Ronstadt was impressed enough with Costello that she decided to include one of his songs, “Alison,” on the album she was then in the midst of recording. The album, Living in the USA, was a smash, and Costello’s reported chagrin over Ronstadt’s version of his song was soothed significantly by the royalty checks he received.

“I’ve never communicated with him directly, but I heard that someone asked him what he thought, and he said he’d never heard it but that he’d be glad to get the money,” Ronstadt told Playboy. “So I sent him a message. ‘Send me some more songs, just keep thinking about the money.'”

Costello did send Ronstadt a song, the previously unreleased “Talking in the Dark.” Ronstadt used it as the starting point for her next studio album, Mad Love. She added two other Costello compositions — “Girls Talk” and “Party Girl.” Those selections combined with Ronstadt’s eschewing of many of her previous West Coast collaborators, such as various Eagles and songwriter Warren Zevon, to cement the impression that Ronstadt was chasing trends by attempting to make a new wave album. Ronstadt maintained she was simply picking the best rock songs she could find at the moment, and insisting her bolstered clout from the sensational sales of Living in the USA allowed to finally only pick the songs that were right for her, no acquiescing to perceived demands of the marketplace.

It’s bizarre to think Mad Love could have been perceived as Ronstadt pandering, if only because she was at an absolutely peak of popularity and hardly needed a boost. And Mad Love isn’t all that different from the usual mixed bag of borrowed songs that made up all of Ronstadt’s defining albums from the nineteen-seventies. Sure, “How Do I Make You” gets her as close as she’d ever come to punk belting, but much of the album is in familiar territory a lilting, low-grind take on Neil Young’s “Look Out for My Love,” and “Hurts So Bad,” which lands somewhere between Olivia Newton-John and Roberta Flack, could have slotted onto any of her mega-sellers. Her version of the Hollies’ “I Can’t Let Go” is the best showcase for what Ronstadt did better than just about anyone: She takes a bygone song that might not be incredibly well known but has the bones of a standard, and she makes it utterly commanding through the sheer power of her interpretation.

Mad Love was another strong performer for Ronstadt, but it didn’t have the air of sensation of its two predecessors, Living in the USA and Simple Dreams. Ronstadt must have been dissatisfied with the results, too. She stepped away from the record-tour-repeat grind of rock stardom to appear alongside Kevin Kline in a New York stage production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance (in a role she would later reprise on film). When she returned to recording, she’d lost interest in rock and pop. Following the 1982 release Get Closer, filled with songs meant to appease her record label, Ronstadt moved on to make a series of albums of lush, orchestral jazz crafted in collaboration with Nelson Riddle. She remained active for many years, but was never again a significant presence in the upper reaches of the pop charts.

246. X, Ain’t Love Grand (1985)

X dependably followed a pattern with their first four albums. They went into the studio with producer Ray Manzarek, bashed out a a few new rock songs rattled by punk fury, and then release the finished product to an adoring few and only meager commercial success. An outfit that always had more ambition that most of their scruffy Los Angeles contemporaries, X wanted out of the unprofitable rut of cult heroes. They parted ways with Manzarek and hired Michael Wagner, who took the gig in the midst of a professional run that also included production work for Dokken and Stryper. Ain’t Love Grand was bound to be a very different X record.

If some disruption evident on the album could be reasonable attributed to the ill fit of a producer, it’s likely that some interpersonal turmoil was more problematic. John Doe and Exene Cervenka, the band’s two singers and primary songwriters, were in the midst of dissolving their five-year marriage as they worked on album. Given the asphalt toughness that informed X’s best work, that friction could have worked to the material’s overall benefit. It arguably does on “Burning House of Love,” a pummeling bruiser that truly seethes (“Now, you’re in your bed and I’m in mine/ On either side of town/ I think I might take a ride/ And burn your love house down”). Most of the album is leaden and lost, the sound of a band operating grudgingly rather than with verve and potency.

“Around My Heart” has a plodding beat, and “Love Shack” is retro-roiled rock with Cervenka sounding disengaged. They get a little spirit going on the rockabilly romp “Little Honey,” and the bristling rock song “What’s Wrong with Me” is briefly enlivened by a nearly deadpan dialogue between Doe and Cervenka in the middle, similar to the cheeky interplay Jack and Meg White occasionally engaged in on later White Stripes records. Too much of Ain’t Love Grand is a drag: the bafflingly dull “I’ll Stand Up for You,” a pedestrian cover of the Small Faces’ “All or Nothing.” It has the feel of a formerly great band making their very last record.

Ain’t Love Grand wasn’t the last X record, but it did auger an ending of sorts. Not long after the album’s release, guitarist Billy Zoom left the band. If X was going to continue, another reinvention was in order.

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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