College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #230 to #228

230. Concrete Blonde, Concrete Blonde (1986)

When bassist Johnette Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey decided to form a band together, in 1982, they chose the name the Dreamers. They played a few gigs around Los Angeles and elbowed their way onto a compilation called The D.I.Y. Album with a mildly Motels-esque track called “Heart Attack.” The band changed their name to Dream 6 after adding drummer Michael Murphy to the roster, releasing a self-titled EP on their own Happy Hermit label. After striking out in an attempt to get signed to a larger label, the band was in the midst of recording a full-length using their own money when they got a call from I.R.S. Records. Label head Miles Copeland wanted to add the band to the I.R.S. galaxy of stars, but felt the band’s name wasn’t distinctive enough, considering the likes of the Dream Syndicate and the Dream Academy were already taking up space on the college charts. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, a longtime acquaintance of the band and new labelmate, suggested they needed a name that reflected the contrast between the literate, emotionally acute lyrics and tough, punk-informed music. The band took the suggestion Stipe proffered and became Concrete Blonde.

The self-titled table album of the freshly rechristened band is an announcement of intent by an act still developing their chops. Murphy was replaced by Harry Rushakoff, and there are times on Concrete Blonde where it really does seem like the trio is still feeling each other out, searching for their sound. “True” has just a tang of country and a tingle of Heart, and a cover of George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” is airy and tentative.

They do better when they lean into the part of their shiny new band name that is poured out of a transit mixer. “Your Haunted Head” blasts forward, and “Over Your Shoulder” is downright blistering. “Still in Hollywood” might best forecast the more forceful winners on Concrete Blonde albums to come; it’s a sharply calibration of rock braggadocio, slyly melodic craft, and Napolitano’s raw, yelping vocals. As a songwriter and performer, Napolitano was also adept at prickly, intricate ballads, and the early evidence of that skill shows up on the acoustic ramble “(You’re the Only One) Can Make Me Cry” and spectral “Cold Part of Town.”

Concrete Blonde got stronger as they went along. By their sophomore full-length, Free, they were already a fierce force, and that album’s follow-up, the magnificent Bloodletting, even gained them unlikely entry into the Billboard Top 40.

229. Dire Straits, Love Over Gold (1982)

For Making Movies, the third Dire Straits album, band leader Mark Knopfler specifically brought in a producer, Daniel Lanois, who he felt could challenge the band enough to take their material to a higher level than before. By the next record, Knopfler was ready to guitar-strap the production burden over his own shoulders. With his brother, David Knopfler, officially off the roster after quitting during production of that third record, Mark Knopfler had more decisive authority than ever before of the direction of the band, and their solid successes to that point gave him some leeway with the record company. Knopfler was ready to go big.

The album Love Over Gold has forty-one minutes of music and only five songs. The shortest track has a runtime of 5:50, and album opener “Telegraph Road” is nearly fifteen minutes long. Ideally, that would represent a flurry of different, dynamic ideas. That’s not really the case, though. The cut is simply more of Knopfler’s trademark guitar noodling, inarguably expert but refined to point of mummification, and mildly disinterested signing of pedestrian lyrics (“He built a cabin and a winter store/ And he ploughed up the ground by the cold lake shore/ And the other travellers came walking down the track/ And they never went further, no they never went back”), lacquered into deeper lassitude by meticulous studio attention. The same is true of the bland title cut and “It Never Rains.” Only “Industrial Disease” evinces any spirit, largely due to the tang of snark it has in moments such as Knopfler giving voice to physician as a leftover character from an old The Goon Show sketch and lyrics with some sidelong wit to them (“Two men say they’re Jesus/ One of them must be wrong”). Even Knopfler felt he’s erred on the side of too much studio polish.

“I’ve told this one before, but I was sitting in a bar once and unfortunately ‘Telegraph Road’ was playing, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Fuck, it sounds like this big lifeless thing,'” he recounted a few years later. “All this work had gone into it and it doesn’t sound like it’s got any life in it somehow. And then straight after that came ‘Rave On’ by Buddy Holly. It sounded four times louder, twenty times bigger and with a hundred times more life. That really made my day.”

The sound of Love Over Gold might be numbing, but timing was right for an album like that. Around a month after the album’s release, the first compact discs hit the market, and there was soon booming demand for recorded music that showcased the new format’s digital perfection. In 1985, Polygram declared that Love Over Gold was the top-selling CD in the world, at least up to that point. It was about to lose that designation. As it happened, it was another Dire Straits album that displaced it. And that album was a true blockbuster.

228. New Order, Power, Corruption & Lies (1983)

Power, Corruption & Lies is the second studio full-length credited to New Order. It’s also, in many ways, the real starting point for the band. Their debut, Movement, came out when bassist Peter Hook, guitarist Bernard Sumner, and drummer Stephen Morris were still reeling from the suicide of their Joy Division bandmate, Ian Curtis. Joined by keyboardist Gillian Gilbert, the trio made music that quite understandably still awash in the spectral post-punk tones of Joy Division. There’s a distinct sense that they want to be different, likely as a further assertion that they can’t still be Joy Division without Curtis. They didn’t know precisely what that difference was yet. By Power, Corruption, & Lies, they’d decisively and thrillingly figured it out.

The album starts with “Age of Consent,” a fine an opening assertion of artistic identity as can be found in all of college rock. Bending in the lingering winds of their post-punk storms, the track is a masterpiece of yearning proto-electronica, made for dancing while an empire crumbles. The romantic conflict woven into the lyrics is modest and yet cataclysmic: “And I’m not the kind that likes to tell you/ Just what you want me to/ You’re not the kind that needs to tell me/ About the birds and the bees.” New Order began finding this path with a few singles released between the two albums — crackling “Everything’s Gone Green,” proving, restless “Temptation,” and moody epic “Blue Monday” — all them informed by experimentation with new sequencer and other tantalizing toys of music technology. “Age of Consent” makes clear from its opening notes that the trail is properly blazed, and it’s time for the band to roar forward on it.

“Having done those previous singles on our own, that’s when we knew what we really wanted it to sound like,” Gilbert told NME a few years later. “We then wanted to move it along in our own way rather than how a producer might want to. We were left alone and came up with our own sound.”

Their own sound is riveting, whether heard in the buoyant burble of “The Village” or the delightful grab bag of post-disco ideas that is “5 8 6.” Although New Order were hardly the only act plying this particular sonic trade at the time, Power, Corruption, & Lies still sounds like they’re prognosticating all the best dance-based music to come, almost offhandedly. “Ecstasy,” with its spooky-robot vocals, comes across as a more chill Daft Punk, and the slinky, chirpy “Ultraviolence” is practically the Constitution of the United States of LCD Soundsystem. The album finds New Order inventing themselves and inventing the future at once. How can that be gauged as anything short of dazzling?

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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