College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #206 to #204

206. Kate Bush, Hounds of Love (1985)

After releasing four studio albums in the span from 1978 to 1982, Kate Bush was conspicuously absent. Following the release of her 1982 album, The Dreaming, Bush retreated to the countryside, in part, it seems, to mull the muted critical reaction and commercial success of a record that she was adamant was her best to date. With her romantic partner and bassist, Del Palmer, Bush settled herself comfortably into provincial living while simultaneously creating a studio space in her farmhouse home. There, far from the entreaties from record company executives to put herself in the hands of other producers, she could toil away at new material, drawing inspiration from the natural surroundings and whatever philosophical ruminating she found her way to. If, for example, she alit upon the concept that the only means for men and women to understand each other was through some pact with a higher being that allowed them to swap places, then that could be a song, and she could develop it right to the verge of completion in her own space.

“Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” was in fact the first song Bush started working on under these circumstances, and it served as an exciting now-entering-city-limits sign for her fifth studio album, Hounds of Love. Bursting with creative life and steel-spine confidence, Bush engaged herself in making music that suited her more ambitious inclinations (which she felt she’d finally come close to realizing on The Dreaming) and yet was audience-friendly, demonstrating a command of irresistible pop stylings. Bush wound up essentially splitting the album in two: the first side comprised of sharp, effusive pop songs, and the second side a more challenging suite of slyly experimental cuts.

Being honest, I think the first side works better, but that’s mostly because it holds some of Bush’s most masterful pop rhapsodies, led by the previously mentioned “Running Up That Hill.” “Cloudbusting” is precise orchestral pop that carries immense emotional resonance (“But every time it rains/ You’re here in my head/ Like the sun coming out/ Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen”), and the title cut is vast and spectacular while sounding impossibly effortless. Warming to the track the flip side is a tougher task, but that’s admittedly by design. Still, there’s no denying the theatrical beauty and breathtaking invention of the achingly elegant “And Dream of Sleep,” the reinvented Celtic folk of “Jig of Life,” and the intimately epic “Hello Earth.” Maybe the most emblematic cut on the second side (collectively dubbed “The Ninth Wave”) is “Waking the Witch,” which is like a storybook come to life and soundtracked with esoteric dance music cut by gurgled menace, like strangely feathery industrial rock.

Critics who were lukewarm on The Dreaming expended all their superlative on Hounds of Love, and it quickly became Bush’s best-selling album at home at the U.K. On the other side of the Atlantic, it brought Bush the closest she would ever come to contemporary crossover success, including her sole trip to the Billboard Top 40, with the single “Running Up That Hill.” More than those signifiers, it’s arguably the album that cemented Bush’s stature as one of the true greats of her generation.

205. Thompson Twins, Side Kicks (1983)

Formed in 1977, Thompson Twins went through several different iterations across their first several couples and couple albums. At times, the band’s roster swelled to as many as seven official members, and they tried out a myriad of styles. Then the 1982 single “In the Name of Love” became a major club hit in the U.S., topping the Billboard Dance chart for five weeks in the early summer (in between Chéri’s “Murphy’s Law” and Sinnamon’s “Thanks to You”). The masses’ collective vote accounted for, Thompson Twins knew the sound they would adopt from then on. Around the same time, their manager suggested paring the lineup down. When the glitter settled from that, the group was down to frontman Tom Bailey, percussionist Alannah Currie, and keyboard player Joe Leeway, locking in the trio that would spend the next several years romping across the charts and suffering through endless joking observations about the reference to twins in band name was a miscount.

The band’s third overall album, and first in the iteration that delivered a string of hits, was titled Quick Step & Side Kick at home in the U.K. Shortened to Side Kicks and given a reworked track listing in the U.S., the record is a proper accounting of the state of pop as the nineteen-eighties tipped over from early to mid. “Love on Your Side” is all zingy synths and mild theatricality, and “Judy Do” is a pleasant disco trudge. Showing wispy whiskers of some of their prior sonic wanderings, “If You Were Here” is moony goth scrubbed clean to be approachable pop, which made it perfect to help soundtrack the wry teenage misery of Sixteen Candles.

Thompson Twins don’t totally play it safe on the album. There are plentiful signs that they have some odd instincts working in tandem with their mainstream aims. “We Are Detective” has a Latin American tinge that lends a novelty air to its paranoia swiped from film noir (“Someone is on our tail/ We think they’re opening up our morning mail/ And now each time the telephone rings/ We think of frightening things”), and “Watching” slips up some backing vocals from Grace Jones to enhance its arch discombobulation. “Lies” is airy Thomas Dolby pop combined with Duran Duran swagger, a merging that is unexpectedly winning.

In the U.S., Side Kicks wasn’t quite a breakthrough, but it did build on the initial interest in the band. All involved felt they were on the right track. Wasting as little time as possible, Thompson Twins returned to the studio with the album’s producer, Alex Sadkin, hoping to further hone their new formula on a follow-up. They were about to get a whole lot bigger.

204. XTC, The Big Express (1984)

Thanks to frontman Andy Partridge’s insistence that XTC would no longer tour, the band became a studio-only enterprise as of their 1983 album, Mummer. That choice left a lot unsettled, prompting a key lineup shift with the departure of drummer Terry Chambers, and leading to a recording process that suddenly had significantly more pressure to it. Perhaps as a result, there were clashes with Mummer‘s initial producer, Steve Nye. For the follow-up, the band, now a trio also including guitarist Dave Gregory and bassist Colin Moulding, cultivated a more comfortable situation with producer David Lord, who had recently worked with Peter Gabriel on his 1982 album (self-titled as usual, unofficially known as Security) and was coming off of the self-titled debut from the Icicle Works. Mostly driven by Partridge, XTC landed on a loose concept album (or, as he would later describe it, a stealth concept album) about the band’s hometown of Swindon. Inspired by the prominence of a railway repair company in the city, XTC dubbed the album The Big Express.

If The Big Express is lacking in enduring, beloved XTC songs, the album is a dizzying demonstration of their facility with every odd angle of pop craft. As usual, most of the songs on the album are products of Partridge’s inexhaustible pen, but the opening salvo comes from Moulding. “Wake Up” is lean, fierce, with vestiges of their agitated origins and dominant swirl of sounds until it finishes with the ups and downs of a post-punk calliope. It has echos of all the band’s well-documented influences while sounded decidedly of the moment.

The rest of The Big Express zings from one idea to the next. “All You Pretty Girls” is like if nineteen-sixties British rock took its cues from old sea shanties instead of American R&B, “The Everyday Story of Small Town” a proper successor to Small Faces’ Ogdens” Nut Gone Flake, and “Train Running Low on Soul Coal” is characteristic XTC with all sorts of odd studio effects slipping in like spilt ink. “Reign of Blows” is a rickety ride, and “This World Over” is as smooth as a ballad can be. There’s an extensive amount of studio shaping clearly present on the album, whether heard in the mesmerizing “Seagulls Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her” or the gentle tinkling of psychedelia that distinguishes “You’re the Wish You Are I Had.” The album is awash in ambition.

Partridge was deeply happy with the finished product, but the arduous process of working through the dense, complicated material left his bandmates exhausted. Still, the new sonic approach of XTC — lavish, intricate, soaring, dense, and delicate — was now certain. It would only grow more elaborate from here.

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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