233. Pixies, Surfer Rosa (1988)
Not long after the release of their debut EP, Come On Pilgrim, the Pixies got to work on their first full-length. After plans to simply duplicate the process of recording their earlier tracks were scuttled, the Boston band cast around for a new collaborator to oversee the sessions. Pixie were sonic outliers on the roster of 4AD Records, so label head Ivo Watts-Russell cast around for ideas of who might be a good match. He soon landed on Steve Albini, the former Big Black frontman who was just starting to establish himself as a producer for other acts.
“We met Steve Albini at a coffee shop and that was it, we were in the next day,” lead guitarist Joey Santiago recalled years later. “We were excited to get the Pixies on the map. We had the material ready to record, everything was written, way down the road. People were already excited about it — the people we played the material to, live — so it just had to get captured in an exciting sense, and Albini was a pretty damn good choice.”
Albini brought a freewheeling inventiveness to the record that aided immensely in creating a big, dynamic sound, despite the constraints of a modest budget and a quick ten days of studio time. When the song “Gigantic” wasn’t matching the definition of the word in its title, he moved recording equipment into the tiny, cement-walled bathroom down the hall. As a result, the ferocious, mellifluous lead vocals of bassist Kim Deal took on a epic tone, and Pixies had what was arguably their first track that announced itself as an immediate classic.
“Gigantic” is no aberration. The totality of the record, dubbed Surfer Rosa, is a cataclysmic channeling of rock tropes into a transformative new form, one that essentially set the template, for better or worse, for the grunge takeover of the early nineteen-nineties. The burbled prowl and jaggedly unpredictable “Bone Machine,” the warped blues of “Brick Is Red,” and the ravaging punk clamor with the inner child of a surf rock song on “Oh My Golly!” all presaged left-of-center, caustically tuneful radio epics to come. Maybe the clearest way to describe the percolating musical morass the Pixies were tapping into is to note that “Broken Face” comes across as a version of the Police’s plunky, agitated “On Any Other Day” as conceived by Pere Ubu. They were taking fragmentary, unbalanced larks of their predecessors and making them whole.
So much is so accomplished on Surfer Rosa that it can be easy to forget that Pixies were still a nascent endeavor at the time, only a couple years past the fateful day that Santiago and frontman Black Francis decided to start a band together. There are reminders of that embryonic status on the record. “Tony’s Theme” is an appealing goof, but it’s still a goof. And “Break My Body,” while musically lithe and raw, flails at generating greater power through the lazy provocation of anguished lyrics about incest (“I’m the hard looser/ You’ll find me crashing through my mother’s door/ I am the ugly lover/ You’ll find us rolling on the dirty floor”), a cheap tactic that turns up elsewhere on the record, including on the previously mentioned “Broken Face” (“There was this boy who had two/ Children with his sisters/ They were his daughters/ They were his favorite lovers”).
When the album hits, though, it’s eminently clear why Pixies were one of the defining acts of college rock. “River Euphrates” has the bendy intensity that would become their calling card on the following three albums, and “Where Is My Mind?” is, well, practically perfect. All these years later, Surfer Rosa is still jarring and thrilling.
232. Echo & the Bunnymen, Porcupine (1983)
“We’re all very different and have quite different musical tastes, but somehow we manage to fight our way through to one thing that satisfies all of us,” Pete de Freitas, drummer for Echo & the Bunnymen, noted around the time that Porcupine was released.
Slotted in the bursting category of difficult third albums, Porcupine required more fighting than the band’s previous full-lengths. The songs weren’t coming as quickly as before, as the various members were distracted by other opportunities: Will Sergeant, the lead guitarist, working on his first solo album, de Frietas producing and playing with the Wild Swans. Writing and recording the album was an arduous grind, and when the band finally had a full album to present to their label, the reaction wasn’t enthusiastic. It was deemed uncommercial, and Echo & the Bunnymen were asked to take another pass at the songs. Sergeant protested, but they went back into the studio with producer Ian Broudie anyway. They emerged with an album that was initially beset by the hurled daggers of the U.K. music press only to be quickly and repeatedly reassessed favorably, until the general consensus emerged that it stands as “the band’s definitive statement.”
Porcupine opens with “The Cutter,” which itself could be the band’s mission statement delivered as tuneful manifests. With magnificent swells of sound, the track catches post-punk in the midst of its evolution into luxuriant pop. “Back of Love” is splendidly anxious and driving (“I’m on the chopping block/ Chopping off my stopping thought”) and “Ripeness” is probing and punchy. The album generally bristles with energy, whether the crazy rhythms of “Gods Will Be Gods” or the layered, dynamic title cut. They work contradictions in all the right ways. On “Clay,” they put spooky, hollow undertones to a bright, brisk pop song, the effect strengthen by lead singer Ian McCulloch evocatively delivering lyrics wracked by uncertainty and ambivalence (“Am I the half of half-and-half/ Or am I the half that’s whole?/ I’ve got to be one with all my halves/ It’s my worthy earthly goal”). It’s most forlorn version of triumphant pop imaginable.
In the U.K., the album was a breakthrough. It peaked in the runner-up position on the album chart, and prodded single “The Cutter” into the Top 10, the first time Echo & the Bunnymen crossed that threshold. They were ready, it seemed, to get even bigger from there.
231. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, Against the Wind (1980)
After years of grimy toil in the rock ‘n’ roll trenches, Bob Seger finally had some hit records. The 1976 album Night Moves was Seger’s ninth studio effort overall, and it became an unexpected breakthrough. It charted in the Top 10 on Billboard, as did its follow-up, 1978’s Stranger in Town. Both yielded Top 5 singles, the nostalgic, pining title cut from the former and the equally sentimental simpering of “Still the Same” from the latter. Both albums went platinum many times over. There was one achievement that Seger remained unable to mark off his rock star bingo card, though. He aimed to rectify that situation with his next studio album, Against the Wind.
“I was aiming for a totally commercial album,” Seger told the Los Angeles Times a few years later. “Maybe it was a little too commercial, but I wanted to make sure I had three hit singles on it. I had never had a #1 album and I wanted one.”
Seger achieved his stated goals. The album’s first three singles — “Fire Lake,” the title cut, and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” — all nested safely in Seger’s established hit zone: raspy reminiscing in ballads that have a relaxed rocker guy vibe instead of a gooey Shaun Cassidy softness. Accordingly, all three singles logged time in the upper half of the Billboard Top 40. The string of radio successes got Seger where he wanted. Against the wind didn’t only top the Billboard album chart, it spent six solid weeks there.
The whole album is clearly aimed at the safe middle. It has some half-baked ZZ Top–style barnstorming in “Her Strut” and dulled down boogie woogie on “Long Down Silver Line.” “The Horizontal Bop” is as aggressively dumb as the title implies. Seger deserves credit, I suppose, for a passable attempt a Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll mastery on “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” and the amiable, if lyrically simplistic, album closer “Shinin’ Brightly” (“Future’s lookin’ good at last/ Rough times are all in the past/ Oh and it’s shinin’ brightly/ And I think it’s gonna last”). Those relative highlights are still no better than forgettable diversions.
Still, a hit’s a hit. Seger was undeniably a major figure in rock ‘n’ roll. No matter what the album title said, the wind was at his back.
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