College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #242 to #240

242. Gary Numan, The Pleasure Principle (1979)

Anyone looking to provide a sonic example to accompany an explanation of new wave music could do far worse than to select Gary Numan’s “Cars.” Taken from The Pleasure Principle — technically Numan’s first solo album, though two prior albums as part of the band Tubeway Army are arguably all Numan, too — the track is icy and precise, clearly adhering to pop songs structures that were established a couple decades earlier and yet exotic and new in its electronic contours. It’s a feat of engineering that locks in as tightly as the massive deadbolts on a state of the art bank vault. It’s futuristic and timeless at once, the song that plays repeatedly on a jukebox floating in space.

“Cars” is unquestionably Numan’s best known song, but The Pleasure Principle is filled with tracks that deserve to be considered its equal by the masses. Numan was trying to break away from the guitar fury of the punk scene (distinguishing this record from what came before was a major reason he dropped the Tubeway Army name), and the album plays like a deliberately crafted template for whole new forms of pop music. There are precursors to be sure: “Complex,” enriched by an electrified string combo, sounds like David Bowie without the offhand grandeur, and “Observer” is like an overseas cousin to the retro reinvention the Cars were just starting to tinker with. And there was probably no one making electronic music in the late nineteen-seventies who didn’t have some obligation to pay a tithe to Kraftwerk.

Despite the comparisons that can reasonably be made, so much of The Pleasure Principle feels like it gleamed to life without any ancestors. “Airlane” is a sleek instrumental, “Metal” presents the iciest possible version of dreamy pop, and “M.E.” nudges into experimental territory, Numan yelping atop a low, murmuring buzz. When Numan’s inclination to test the listener’s patience takes command on the seven-and-a-half-minute repetitive endurance test “Conversation,” it still somehow works as a pop song, the level of craft signaling that it’s not simply nervy noodling.

Numan was and remained a chart fixture at home in the U.K. On the other side of the Atlantic, The Pleasure Principle was his one real dalliance with commercial success. “Cars” made the Billboard Top 10, and the album climbed into the Top 20 on the chart. He never came anywhere near those heights again. He didn’t need to, really. His place in pop history was secure: “Cars” would be played forevermore as shorthand representation for a whole, mush beloved era.

241. Let’s Active, Every Dog Has His Day (1988)

Mitch Easter’s position as a titan of college radio was firmly established when Every Dog Has His Day, the third album from his band Let’s Active, was released. The only items that he really needed on his resume were the co-production gigs on the first EP and first two LPs from R.E.M. There was more, though. He served as producer on albums by X-Teens, Game Theory, and the Connells, and played on records by Marshall Crenshaw, Marti Jones, and his R.E.M. studio partner Don Dixon. And Let’s Active was hardly a fleeting presence on the left-of-the-dial airwaves; the band’s first two albums racked up plenty of spins. Still, there was a sense that more mainstream success had unjustly eluded him and his band. Every Dog Has His Day plays like a wry concession to that reality of defeat.

With juicy riffs, the title cut imagines laudatory homecoming celebrations that never really came: “Back in town/ knee deep in ticker tape/ When we get back/ Everybody do a double take.” Even when the song topic is overtly about something else — such as the irony-tinged romantic ballad “Sweepstakes Winner” — there’s a strong sense that it carries embedded commentary about the lack of god records on the wall. The album is co-produced by John Leckie, who oversaw classics by XTC and Magazine. Those albums weren’t exactly hits, but I.R.S. Records bosses insisted that he might have the touch to finally goose Let’s Active up a level. Every Dog Has His Day does sound slicker and slightly more exploratory that what came before from the band: the murky blues guitars on “Too Bad” (“My bad luck streak was etched in stone”), the sly power pop of “I Feel Funny,” the swingy menace of “Terminate.” Whether that ranginess is liberating or ill-considered is difficult to pin down.

On the album, Let’s Active also stick close to the jangly, jaunty textures of college rock, a sound that Easter helped invent. “Orpheus in Hades Lounge” recalls the rattletrap flow of Pylon, and “Forty Years,” boasting chiming lead vocals by Annie Carlson, is reminiscent of Guadalcanal Diary. If the album occasionally seems a little in conflict with itself, it’s the sort of friction that can create a big, warming blaze. Every Dog Has His Day is resonant and satisfying. It was also the end of the road for Let’s Active. There wouldn’t be another album issued under that band name.

240. Phil Collins, Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982)

If Phil Collins hadn’t already inadvertently invented the Miami Vice musical aesthetic with the 1981 single “In the Air Tonight,” he would have turned that trick with the lead track from his second solo album, Hello, I Must Be Going! “I Don’t Care Anymore” has spooky synths, gated-reverb drums, and thwarted romance lyrics just vague enough that they can be interpolated to low-level crime saga (“‘Cause I remember all the times I tried so hard/ And you laughed in my face ’cause you held the cards”). Collins was already expert at making music that gave the first impression of being cooler and tougher than it really was, like a dirty brick wall that’s actually skillfully painted balsa wood.

By his own accounting, Collins was feeling discombobulated while he made Hello, I Must Be Going! His solo debut, Face Value, was an unexpected hit, leading the label to pressure him into a quick follow-up, and he was reeling from a very messy divorce. Genesis, the band he still considered his main gig, was on a brief, unofficial hiatus after reaching a new commercial peak with the album Abacab, so heading back into the studio to do his own thing made sense, even if he didn’t quite know what he wanted to say. The result was a confused medley of styles and ideas. The varying results include “Thru These Walls,” a weirdo number about eavesdropping, and “Do You Know, Do You Care?,” booming, bitter ballad with prog-rock barnacles.

Those tracks are at least interesting in their relative oddity. More of Hello, I Must Be Going! is given over to Collins formulating the eager, cheesy showman personality that would soon make him, somewhat improbably, one of the most dependable hitmakers of the nineteen-eighties. A rote, bouncy cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love” exemplifies the vanilla dullness of Collins’s approach. Naturally, it became his first of many Top 10 hits in the U.S. “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” is unbearably gooey, and “The West Side” is smooth jazz so unimaginative it makes Sting’s similar dalliances a few years later sound like Miles Davis. “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning” is the song Collins could have submitted as proof that he was up to the task of penning insipid Disney ballads. Faint praise is due tame, tuneful “I Cannot Believe It’s True” as the clearest precursor to the blockbuster album No Jacket Required.

As the Adonis of adult contemporary, Collins was just getting started. The following year, Genesis reached a new commercial height that was undoubtedly aided by the growing profile of Collins. And, as noted, Collins hit a true superstar level very, very soon.

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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