College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #236 to #234

236. INXS, The Swing (1984)

INXS headed out for a quick North American tour after making initial preparations to record their fourth studio album. It was to be a critical entry in their catalog because it was following the modest breakthrough Shabooh Shoobah, and the band already set out some ambitious goals for broadening their sound with they producer they brought on board, Nick Launay. At a Canadian tour stop, Nile Rodgers was in the house, and he offered to pitch in on the new record. INXS met up with the funk icon at the New York City recording studio the Power Station and worked through the first song they had ready for the new album. Under Rodgers’s tutelage, “Original Sin” became a post–new wave, light funk, lithe soul workout carried to stratospheric heights by the ludicrously charismatic swagger of lead singer Michael Hutchence. INXS had the template for their reinvention to take into sessions with Launay.

“INXS, more than any band, drew influences from everywhere in the world,” Launay said several years later. “On that album, they tapped into the dance-funk thing in American, hit on the blank and white soul style that was huge in England, and because they are such great players, made it all work within the parameters of a rock band.”

I’d argue Launay is being a tad overly generous. The material on INXS’s fourth album, The Swing, doesn’t all work. There is, however, a striking ambition to everything across its two sides. It’s the sound of a band maturing in real time, finding their way to the distinct, propulsive sound that would make them into rock superstars in just a few years. In addition to the general use of the dynamics of dance-funk, there are other places on the album where INXS’s wild grab of outside styles can bring them into the bubble of some of their rough contemporaries: “Burn for You” finds the band doing their best Thompson Twins impression, and “Johnson’s Aeroplane” is almost like Siouxsie and the Banshees with the weird turned town and the pop friendliness turned up to equal degrees. More often, INXS are clearly scratching their way through a metamorphosis, evolving into their near-future selves, whether with the locked-groove satisfaction of “I Send a Message,” the riled-up “Dancing on the Jetty,” or the spacey funk of “Face the Change.”

The Swing brought slow and steady progress on the global stage. Its chart peak in the U.S. was actually a little behind that of Shabooh Shoobah, but it also sold about twice as many copies. At home in Australia, the album was a smash. It was INXS’s first album to top the charts there and went on reach quintuple platinum status. They were clearly onto something, and bigger and better was yet to come.

235. The Stranglers, Dreamtime (1986)

When the Stranglers prepared to record Dreamtime, their ninth studio album overall and third as part of a pact with major label Epic Records, the original intent was to reunite with producer Laurie Latham. He’d overseen the band’s previously album, Aural Sculpture, and was instrumental in juicing up their established sound with the inclusion of a small horn section. The Stranglers arrived with a few partially finished songs with the hopes that Latham would help them buff them into shape in the studio. Instead, he told them the material simply wasn’t ready and sent them packing, telling them to come back when what they had was closer to completion. That arguably understandable directive inadvertently ended the professional relationship.

“Laurie’s comment that our songs weren’t ready had left a nasty taste in our mouths because we liked to work with people were confident in us,” frontman Hugh Cornwell later reflected.

The Stranglers opted instead to recruit producer Mike Kemp, a shared acquaintance of keyboardist Jean-Jacques Burnel and drummer Dave Greenfield. His charge was less to help reinvent what they had than to build on the fruitful leaps they made on their preceding album. The horn-blasted whirligig “Was It You?” is probably the clearest attempt at continuing in that mode, and, maybe unsurprisingly, it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks. The obvious pinnacle is “Always the Sun,” a beautifully polished pop song that served as one of the album’s singles.

Much of Dreamtime suggests that maybe Latham was right, and the Stranglers didn’t quite know how to solve the little problems within the songs. The album’s title is taken from the quasi-religious practice of Australian Aboriginals, and the Stranglers were engaged in trying to carrying forward some of the culture of the unfairly disregarded. That admirable sentiment only comes through glancingly on the album. Most of the songs make light impressions with their different sonic textures, such as the blorping synths and rough-and-raggedy Psych-Furs swoop of “Nice in Nice” or the weirdly sputtery version of dream pop of “Mayan Skies.” The band almost seems on the verge of cutting loose on “Ghost Train,” which leans literal with a chugga-chugga rhythm. They’re just as likely to mired in overly staid adornments, as on “You’ll Always Reap What You Sow.”

Dreamtime was the first, and only, album by the Stranglers to chart in the U.S. Everywhere else, it either held steady commercially with its immediate predecessor or regressed a decent amount. The band released only one more album with the lineup that had been in place since their 1977 debut, Rattus Norvegicus. Hugh Cornwell departed the group after the 1990 album 10.

234. The Sisters of Mercy, Floodland (1987)

Officially, only two members of the Sisters of Mercy carried over from the band’s debut full-length, First and Last and Always, to their sophomore outing, Floodland: frontman Andrew Eldritch and a drum machine dubbed Doktor Avalanche. Everyone else broke away, many of them citing the difficulty of working with Eldritch as a chief motivating factor for their choice. Eldritch himself retreated, presumably fuming over the situation while rumors about his collapsing mental state or rampant drug abuse (or both) abounded. After a dalliance with operating a band called the Sisterhood, Eldritch reclaimed the name Sisters of Mercy, figuring he was the one songwriter who took a credit on every track on the band’s debut anyway. He deserved to keep the outfit going under the billing that had some cachet.

Bringing along former the Gun Club bassist Patricia Morrison from the one album released by the Sisterhood, Eldritch threw himself into making an album that sounds like the magnus opus of goth rock. For the advance single, Eldritch brought in producer Jim Steinman, presumably because no one else did pop bombast quite like him. The track they collaborative delivered, “This Corrosion,” is an exploding theme park of giddy, smudged-eyeliner excess. It build and builds and then builds some more, a propulsive beat and a echoing choir competing for attention as Eldritch croons out, “I got nothing to say I ain’t said before/ I bled all I can, I won’t bleed no more.” It stretches to more than nine minutes and sometimes feels, in the best possible way, like it might last forever.

Nothing else on Floodland hits quite same scale of operatic thrill, in part because Steinman is largely absent, leaving only light fingerprints on the industrial-gleam opener “Dominion” / “Mother Russia.” The album still benefits from the sense that Eldritch has something to prove, part to former bandmates Wayne Hussey and Craig Adams, who went off to form the tonally similar band the Mission. “Lucretia My Reflection” comes close to grinding thrill routinely delivered by the Jesus and Mary Chain, and “1959” is a surprisingly effective piano ballad, despite lyrics that are characteristically difficult to penetrate. Even when the material is a little rote, such as the plodding “Driven Like the Snow” (“Like brittle things will break before they turn/ Like lipstick on my cigarette/ And the ice get harder overhead/ Like think it twice but never never learn”), it generally works as part of the greater whole, this reverberating treatise of romantic gloom.

Following Floodland Eldritch again tore down a rebuilt the Sisters of Mercy, releasing a third studio album, Vision Thing, in 1990. That was followed, of course, by more contentiousness, notably a protracted battle with EastWest Records. When that business skirmish reached a close, in 1997, Eldritch announced intentions to work on a new full-length, cautioning it “usually takes a long time.” Twenty-five years later, the grand total of Sister of Mercy albums remains locked at three.

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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