College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #227 to #225

227. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Happy Head (1986)

In 1985, the Mighty Lemon Drops formed in the West Midlands city of Wolverhampton, playing gigs here and there as the Sherbert Monsters whenever they wanted to work through new material. Around a year later, they landed on the NME compilation cassette C86, sandwiched in between fellow upstarts Primal Scream and the Soup Dragons. Their contribution, the lean, Doors-ish “Like an Angel,” invited a flurry of label attention, and the band signed to the Chrysalis subsidiary Blue Guitar with Sire snapping up the North American rights. Suddenly flush with financial resources, the band went into the studio with Stephen Street, who’d recently engineered the Smiths album Meat Is Murder, and emerged with their debut full-length, Happy Head.

Understandably given their rapid rise, Happy Head sounds like a band still shaping their identity in a dynamic — and fickle — U.K. music scene. The Mighty Lemon Drops are clearly crafty pop artisans, working their way through hooky wonders that waft like dandelion fluff. “Like an Angel” is revived, now sounding fuller, a little like a Jesus and Mary Chain grinder with the dark goth beauty scraped away. They set themselves up as sonic cousins to the likes of the Teardrop Explodes and Echo & the Bunnymen, straying only so far from that territory across the two sides, settling for humbler variations: the jabbing blast of “The Other Side of You,” the clangy fervor of “Pass You By,” the brisk and bouncy “Take Me Up.” A lingering nineteen-sixties influence peeks out occasionally, as with the gentle psychedelia under the surface of “On My Mind,” but the Mighty Lemon Drops are mostly beholden to the moment they’re in.

If Happy Head is more about promise that fully realized execution, that promise is, like the band name asserts, quite mighty. “My Biggest Thrill” is perfectly polished pop-rock, a tantalizing preview of triumphs to come. It accurately suggests there is greatness is this band waiting to be satisfactorily melded into being. It wouldn’t take long.

226. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Architecture & Morality (1981)

“It’s still my favorite OMD album,” Paul Humphreys said on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Architecture & Morality. “Creatively, it was the pinnacle of that early era for us, and I think the record still hangs together really well. I think the whole vibe of Architecture & Morality is just so beautiful.”

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark parlayed their escalating success at home in the U.K. into the opportunity to experiment with their third studio album, particularly in the relentless use of a Mellotron, an instrument that was a mainstay of prog rock but new to them. The band, driven creatively by Humphreys and fellow multi-instrumentalist Andy McCluskey, operated with a stated ambition to push themselves into new territory with every release, and they adhered to that credo on Architecture & Morality, taking their striking, fiercely catchy dance pop and swelling it to big, modern, electronic symphonies. Emphasizing their sly audacity, the flip side of the album kicks off with two different tracks titled “Joan of Arc,” the second given the distinguishing parenthetical subtitle “Maid of Orleans” at the record label’s urging. Both songs were released as singles. Both were Top 10 hits on the British charts.

Architecture & Morality is a masterful pop record from start to finish. On the album, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are expansive without being ostentatious, delivering epics that are somehow easygoing in their precise artfulness. They often land on a general tone and hone it to perfection: the smooth, sleek “She’s Leaving,” drifty, lovely “The Beginning and the End,” and the elegantly immersive “Souvenir.” That steadiness heightens the effect of instances where more friction is introduced into the work, such as the unsettled synth lines engaged in combat on “The New Stone Age,” an tension that suits the song’s anguished lyrics: “The think that you’ve done/ You don’t understand/ The feeling the longing/ The failing that’s gone.” On the exploratory title cut, brings trademark nineteen-eighties pop as close as it would ever get to radical jazz invention.

The ambition of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark led to their strongest commercial showing to that point. In the U.K., Architecture & Morality got the band to a new peak on the album chart and became their first release to achieve platinum sales status. In the U.S., they made the Billboard album chart for the first time. If the only real question was how they would top this with their next album, the answer was by getting yet more ambitious.

225. Devo, New Traditionalists (1981)

When Devo released the bold, bounding “Beautiful World” as the lead single from their fourth studio album, New Traditionalists, some versions included a B-Side titled “Nu-Tra Speaks (New Traditionalist Man).” On the track, a digitized voice expounds atop oddly melodic, spacey sound effects. The voice introduces itself as “Nutra, for Devo Incorporated” and goes on to thank the “devolutionary humans” who have waited so patiently “while Devo gathered its strength for the next offensive.” In a world gone mad, the listener is told, “Devo attempts to cut through the mental grease and grime with techniques of positive mutation designed to protect you from the ninnies and the twits.”

At that particular moment, it briefly felt like there were more devolutionary humans seeking sonic protection than practically anyone had previously suspected. With Devo’s preceding album, Freedom of Choice, the group had gone from cult heroes to unlikely hitmakers on the strength of the single “Whip It.” The surge to prominence had been so rapid and unexpected that Devo expressed their misgivings with the opening track on New Traditionalists, “Through Being Cool.” Devo took direct aim at the masses who misunderstood their music while jubilantly singing along, though the lyrics were oblique enough that their intended targets likely remained ignorant of the ire leveled against them (“Spank the pank who tried to drive you nuts/ Time to clean some house/ Be a man or a mouse/ Waste those who make it tough to get around were surely unaware of the ire”), which might have been an extension of the point.

The process of making the album was more challenging that anything Devo had endured up to that point. Among other setbacks, the new type of audio tape that the band used to record the album started to literally disintegrated before the process was complete, a circumstance that Devo’s record label Warner Bros. was shockingly unconcerned about. The rocky ride amazingly doesn’t compromise the finished product. New Traditionalists often feels like the closest Devo could come to their arch, inventive selves. Whether in the rubbery space disco of “Pity You” or the pinball-ricochet blurp and shimmy of “Going Under,” the band is iconoclastic and approachable at the same time, making impeccable pop music that they then hold up to display the absurdity of it all. Proving their fortitude, “Race of Doom” approaches peak Kraftwerk in its razor-steel precision, and “Love Without Anger” demonstrates that while Devo couldn’t quite keep pace with Talking Heads’ art-rock ingenuity, they were often kicking up dirt on the same stretch of the track.

Compared against the commercial breakthrough of its immediate predecessor in the Devo discography, New Traditionalists was a dud. The band’s fleeting easement of tensions with Warner Bros. collapsed, and their place in the seismically shifting entertainment industry went back to its prior precariousness. By the time the Devo’s next album came around, some defensiveness started to naturally seep into the statement they wanted to make. There were greater numbers of ninnies and twits to stand against.

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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