College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #215 to #213

215. Mighty Lemon Drops, World Without End (1988)

“We have found ourselves musically,” David Newton, guitarist for the Mighty Lemon Drops, told Sounds shortly before the release of the band’s third LP, World Without End. “With this album, our influences are a lot less obvious and less apparent. When we started, we never intended to sound like one band, but I suppose in the early days our influences did come across too strong. It was a learning experience.”

The English band doesn’t sound radically different on World Without End than they did on their preceding releases, and it’s probably up for debate whether they fully distinguish themselves from the pack of other chiming, sweetly morose, guitar-slinging Brits populating the college charts at the time. It seems all but irrefutable, however, that the album is a major improvement in command and confidence. Working with producer Tim Palmer (whose knob-twiddling prowess was also on display on Robert Plant’s Now and Zen, released at about the same time), the Mighty Lemon Drops deliver sleek, vibrant pop songs. The delirious pinnacle is “Inside Out,” which served as the lead single and is about a perfect as can be, built on a charging hook and evocatively intoned lyrics of lovelorn ache (“Clutching on the last straw/ Seeing things I’ve never saw/ Must be time I fell/ Down to a place I didn’t know too well”).

Only the slower material on the album disappoints, and even then the drop-off is minor: “Closer to You” is a little saggy, and “Shine” strains for an exotic tinge that just comes across as tepidly confused. The rest of the album works wonders. “No Bounds” has some of the offhand majesty of the best Echo & the Bunnymen work, “One By One” is punchy and intense, and “Fall Down (Like the Rain)” improbably suggests what Midnight Oil might have sounded like if they’d deradicalized and devoted themselves wholeheartedly to wistful pop songs. It all glimmers with inspiration.

Even as the Mighty Lemon Drops were proving themselves precise practitioners of their musical craft, they were running into resistance at home in the U.K. The country’s ruthless music press brought out the swords, and the band struggled to find a foothold on the radio. In the U.S., student broadcasters fell hard for the Mighty Lemon Drops, and years later Newton was still marveling that the band was able to push aside Talking Heads and Morrissey to claim the top spot on the Gavin Report college radio chart.

“I still think it must be a misprint,” he said in an interview. “Yes, college radio really helped us in America!”

214. Adam Ant, Friend or Foe (1982)

The bloke born Stuart Leslie Goddard decided most of his cohorts in the band Adam and the Ants were insufficiently enthusiastic about the music they were creating. Surely, he must have also realized that his chosen stage moniker, Adam Ant, made him the so distinctly the predominant identity of the group that he didn’t really need the shared billing any longer. After asking guitarist Marco Pirroni to stick with him, Ant formally struck out on his own. In his solo career, Friend or Foe is the opening salvo.

Although Ant was no neophyte at this point, it’s still impressive how complete the material sounds. The title cut has all the ingredients of his most enduring hits: the scrambling drumbeat, singing right on the cusp of chanting, and horn parts that flare like sparklers on a birthday cake. “Goody Two Shoes” swirls the formula even more effectively, setting forth with a propulsive zing that helps define that sound that springs to mind when most U.S. fans think about nineteen-eighties pop. “Place in the Country” is like the little cousin to that track, but it also hits at the wider range Ant strives for on the record as it flirts with sonic abstractions that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the grooves pressed on behalf of Public Image Limited.

There’s a lot wild invention to be found on Friend or Foe. “Desperate But Not Serious” has a sense of drama that makes it seem like Ant is trying to demonstrated what a new-wave James Bond song could sound like, and “Man Called Marco” is similarly cinematic, if more in a spaghetti-western-meets-French-romance mode. The explorations can sometimes cause Ant to land on sounds are slightly less effective, as with the vestiges of pub rock present on “Here Comes the Grump” or the weirdly jingle-like “Made of Money.” A cover of the Doors’ “Hello, I Love You” is a goof that would have been better relegated to a B-side, where it could land like a snarky gag rather than a piece of an otherwise satisfying artistic statement.

On the tour to support the album, Ant embraced a level of theatrically that was still somewhat out of favor with rock critics while the stripped-down rampage of the nineteen-seventies punk revolution was still ringing. That instinct served him well, however, as music videos emerged as a matter of high importance in the decade. Ant became an early mainstay of MTV and, for a moment anyway, a great big rock star.

213. The dB’s, Like This (1984)

Even as his band the dB’s had scuffled through a few uncertain years, the situation Peter Holsapple found himself in should have been the happy culmination of his musical ambitions. Yes, the band needed to reconfigure themselves after the departure of Chris Stamey, who shared songwriting and frontman duties with Peter Holsapple. And three long years had passed since their previous studio album, an eternity in an era when their regular tourmates R.E.M. were dropping a new full-length LP on basically an annual basis. Then again, after releasing their first two albums on a British label that received only limited distribution in the U.S., the dB’s had finally signed with an American outfit. Better yet, their new home was Bearsville Records, the home of Todd Rundgren and a label Holsapple long revered, to the point of sewing a patch with the company’s logo onto his high school knapsack. Maybe the dB’s could finally transform the critical acclaim they enjoyed into record sales and broader radio airplay.

Holsapple even thought he’d written the song that was destined for the top of the charts. Like This, the third album from the dB’s, leads off with “Love Is for Lovers,” a nifty nugget of a pop song that he was still mentally fidgeting with as an unrecognized golden ticket, writing “Once upon a time, though, I think I wrote a hit” as part of a lengthy essay for The New York Times.

The song wasn’t a hit, though. Instead, it settles in as another entry in the dB’s songbook, packed full of tunes that are string of pop-rock peaks that rival the Alps. “A Spy in the House of Love” gives the model a touch of twangy funk, “Spitting in the Wind” is the closest the band could come to a hard-rock grind, and “White Train” is country-fried goodness. They’re all variations that beat with the same strong heart. The consistency is underscored by the inclusion of “Amplifier,” a song borrowed from the band’s previous album, Repercussion. Making perfect polished cuts is something Holsapple and his bandmates can do all day long, the album seems to argue, like a slugger depositing every batting-practice pitch into the bleacher seats with a satisfying clang.

Whatever joy Holsapple had about being on Bearsville, and the hope shared among all the dB’s that they’d finally cracked one of the codes of music-biz success, was sucker-punched by reality not long after the release of Like This. Bearsville boss Albert Grossman effectively got out of the record label game, switching his company to a production entity that essentially consigned albums to other labels. The dB’s weren’t happy about being held to their multi-album deal under these changed circumstances and soon found themselves in a legal battle to break the contract. The messiness they thought they’d escaped was still all around them. Once again, years would pass before their next album.

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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