221. UB40, Labour of Love (1983)
“The area we all come from is a slum — southeast Birmingham,” UB40 guitarist Robin Campbell told Spin in 1985. “The farther out you get from the city, the nicer it gets. But towards the center, it’s an industrial center. There’re a lot of car factories. Also, there’s a very high immigrant population, either Asians or Jamaicans, West Indians. Which is why we’re into reggae. We grew up on it.”
For their fourth studio album, UB40 decided to share some of that reggae they grew up on. The aptly named Labour of Love featured the sprawling band clicking through their versions of songs recorded by seminal reggae acts between 1969 and 1972. Famously, their dedicated focus on one genre and one era meant they didn’t even realized they were covering a 1967 Neil Diamond song with “Red Red Wine,” believing instead that the Tony Tribe take on the tune, released in 1969, was an original. Curiously enough, given the historical blind spot, UB40’s go at the number lands squarely in between the relaxed lilt of Diamond and the chipper rendering by Tribe. At home in the U.K., UB40’s “Red Red Wine” was a immediate smash, topping the singles chart for three weeks. It also become the band’s first single to chart in the U.S., cracking the Top 40 to peak at #34. Five years later, in a strange progression of toppling cultural dominos, the cover reentered the Billboard Hot 100 and climbed all the way to the top.
If “Red Red Wine” is by far the best known track on Labour of Love, its at least wholly indicative of the other material on the record rather than some mainstream-friendly outlier. The whole album resides in the same atmosphere of island rhythms made sluggish and tame. “Cherry Oh Baby” is limp, “Sweet Sensation” is a numbing plod, and “Please Don’t Make Cry” incorporate the twinkly goo of adult contemporary radio. Matters don’t improve when they try to dress up the songs a bit. The result is simply off-putting fussiness, as on the noodly “She Caught the Train” and the blippy and dull “Many Rivers to Cross,” the latter one of the more familiar songs of the record given its presence in Jimmy Cliff’s songbook. Soulful “Guilty” is one of the few cuts that works, perhaps indicating that Isaac Hayes, the song’s original writer, is one of those musical creators whose best efforts can’t be tamped down by anyone.
Labour of Love was easily UB40’s most commercially successful album, and the band had no reservations about repeating a winning formula. Covers became a integral part of their repertoire. A version of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” with Chrissie Hynde handling the iconic future Oscar-winner’s side of the duet, became UB40’s second U.S. Top 40 hit a couple years later, and they released explicit, roman-numerically designated sequels to Labour of Love, in 1989, 1998, and 2010.
220. Laurie Anderson, Mister Heartbreak (1984)
For her sophomore studio album, Mister Heartbreak, Laurie Anderson had a lot of material to drawn from. She’d recently introduced the enormous piece United States, which included around eight hours of music, spoken word, and other sonic elements that she felt free to draw from. There were other projects she’d been tinkering with that had shards of ideas with no where else to go, most notably an opera inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow that came crashing down because the iconoclastic author insisted he would provide the rights on the strict condition that Anderson include a banjo among the soundscape. Disinclined to simply recycle ideas, Anderson sought out collaborators who could stir her to find use those ideas as starting points on the way to the new. According to Anderson, that strategy began with the hiring of Bill Laswell to coproduce the record.
“He has a different approach, and knows very different kinds of musicians than I do,” Anderson told The Washington Post around the time of the album’s release. “I got interested in Cuban music last summer, and he knew Cuban musicians. When I was working on the Japanese song, ‘Kokoku,’ I’d gotten a koto and was trying to learn to play it. But Bill said, ‘Gotta listen to this kayagum player Sang Won Park .'”
The openness to collaborators doesn’t diminish Anderson’s creative voice in the slightest. Mister Heartbreak is instead a document of the ways she can remold the contours of her output to make space for different, sometimes competing, instincts. “Excellent Birds” is probably the most illuminating example, if only because of the broader familiarity with the equally distinctive style of her main collaborator on the track, Peter Gabriel. It’s a wild melding of Anderson’s spooky avant-garde and Gabriel’s angular intensity, set further atilt by the guitar playing of Nile Rodgers. It’s challenging, but with a happy shrug. Like the rest of the album, it carries a tacit acknowledgement, delivered in high spirits, that if it doesn’t totally work, the attempt at invention is the important part anyway. Gabriel’s own assessment that it didn’t totally work led him to release his own interpretation a couple years later, on So.
“Gravity’s Angel” and its clangy wandering is drawn from the aborted Pynchon-inspired opera, and “Langue D’Amour” has fragments from United States informing its electronic rhythms that proceed like an irregular pulse or a burbling tar pit. The album is bookended by the story of Sharkey, in the sprawling, intricately jagged opener “Sharkey’s Day” and the lithely funky, lightly industrial closer “Sharkey’s Night,” which features William S. Burroughs gurgling out spoken lyrics of devilishly off poetry (“He says, ‘Hey sport. You connect the dots. You pick up the pieces’/ He says, “You know, I can see two tiny pictures of myself and there’s one in each of your eyes. And they’re doin’ everything I do'”).
In terms of chart placement, Mister Heartbreak still stands as Anderson’s best performing album. With a peak of #60, it’s Anderson’s only release to get into the upper half of the Billboard album chart. Of course, Anderson’s influence and import are gauged in far more meaningful metrics than sales. Mister Heartbreak is one small, entertaining part of a truly monumental career.
219. Soul Asylum, Hang Time (1988)
After three albums and a flotsam-and-jetsam collection of their hometown label Twin/Tone Records, the Minneapolis band Soul Asylum made the leap to a major label. Evidently impressed by the band’s surging fan base and steadily evolving confidence, A&M Records signed the group and connected them with producers Lenny Kaye and Ed Stasium, each of them bringing strong punk credibility into the studio with them (Kaye as a member of the Patti Smith Group, and Stasium as a regular studio presence with the Ramones). If the brief was to deliver a booming, compelling hard rock record, Soul Asylum met it perfectly on Hang Time.
Invariably compared to the standard bearers of loud music out of the Twin Cities, Hüsker Dü and the Replacements, Soul Asylum attack Hang Time as if they’re determined to prove their mettle apart from those scene colleagues. “Standing in the Doorway” has racing drums and metal-cut guitar riffs, and “Heavy Rotation” flirts with hardcore. “Down On Up to Me” is grindy, grungy rock, basically anticipating the first Soundgarden record, which was a few months away. There can be a numbing sameness to this sort of amps-to-eleven approach, but Soul Asylum’s sound pop instincts keep peeping through the tumult, exemplified by the fierce, brightly catchy “Sometime to Return” and “Cartoon,” both wisely issued as singles.
Soul Asylum occasionally bring to mind some earlier rock powerhouses on Hang Time. On “Jack of All Trades” they almost sound like a juvenile-delinquent version of ZZ Top, and “Marionette” sweeps through a very specific, glam-spattered version of nineteen-seventies rock, almost like Thin Lizzy after a light injection of ABBA. What could be a freewheeling mess is instead as tight as clenched teeth. Soul Asylum sounds like a band unleashed, ready to play their instruments to shreds before the record company money men take away the privilege of doing so. They weren’t wrong to think so. A&M Records didn’t really know what do with Soul Asylum. After one more full-length studio album, the label dropped them. The band wound up on Columbia Records, a label that, it turned out, knew exactly how to help Soul Asylum shape their material to appeal to mainstream audiences.
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.