College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #200 to #198

200. Los Lobos, By the Light of the Moon (1987)

“We were trying to take it somewhere else — a step further or something, just to not repeat what we’d done,” David Hidalgo, guitarist and vocalist of Los Lobos, later said of the band’s sophomore full-length, By the Light of the Moon. “The storytelling style of writing went even further on that album, I think.”

The rock band earned beaming critical plaudits and modest but noticeable commercial success with their debut album, How Will the Wolf Survive?, released in 1984, but crafting the follow-up proved to be an arduous process. After a bad experience getting snookered into providing material for Paul Simon’s acclaimed Graceland album, Los Lobos went back into the studio with T Bone Burnett, co-producer on their first album. The reunion didn’t go well, and Burnett essentially exited the process and moved on to other endeavors before the album was complete. Compounding the strain, Los Lobos were stretched thin by a fast-moving movie soundtrack project that required them to cut several cover songs more or less concurrently with the original material for their proper record.

It’s a measure of the band’s command that barely a whisper of that shows up on By the Light of the Moon. The album filled with music of clear intent and authority, incorporating Tejano influences into rootsy American rock and roll. There’s an exciting alertness to the social situations of the moment, in the black heart of Ronald Reagan’s second term as U.S. president, when the Republican’s Party was really stiffening their collective spine in celebrating bigotry and persecution of anyone who did fit snugly in a white, heterosexual, chauvinistic, piously Christian demographic. Album opener “One Time One Night” has some of the crisp storytelling Hidalgo mentioned: “A young girl tosses a coin in the wishing well/ She hopes for a heaven while for her there’s just this hell/ She gave away her life to become somebody’s wife/ Another wish unanswered in America.”

That’s not to imply that the album offers a parade of didactic protest rock. By the Light of the Moon largely succeeds because of how thrillingly it grooves. “All I Wanted to Do Was Dance” is slinky Latin funk, “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)” pops like classic Van Morrison, and “My Baby’s Gone” revives and revamps the sharp R&B of icons such as B.B. King or Wilson Pickett. “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” is classic rock ‘n’ roll harnesses for a new generation. The tender ballad “Tears of God” closes the album with a touch of wounded grace: “It’s a stubborn life we lead/ And there’s never no rest/ Trouble’s out there looking for you/ Even when you try your best.”

The album was a solid success for the band, but the soundtrack side project wound up being the cultural contribution that soon made them an unavoidable act. La Bamba, a Taylor Hackford–directed biopic of early rocker Ritchie Valens, opened in July 1987. Los Lobos provided new versions of Valens’s songs for the film and its soundtrack. The film’s title song, a Top 40 hit for Valens, became a chart-topping smash for Los Lobos.

199. The Specials, The Specials (1980)

The self-titled debut album by the Specials hit like a rocket. Released the previous year in the U.K., the album had some small alterations when it hit record shops in the U.S., but it was largely the same collection of riveting ska songs infused with the energy of punk rock. Elvis Costello produced the album, doing his best to simply capture the energy of the band, with as little finessing as possible. The early effort of the Clash were the lodestar for the the Specials. They wanted the material to come across as captured live on record, with all the rawness and spontaneity that implies.

That Clash vibe is clamorously clear on “Concrete Jungle,” which bounds fervently along, even as the lyric firmly address the racist invectives, and worse, endured by Black people in the U.K.: “I’m walking home tonight/ I only walk where there’s lots of lights/ In the alleys and the doorways/ Some throw a bottle right in your face.” With a multicultural lineup, the Specials took it as a mandate to speak to the tumult and treacherousness of the moment.

“We were working as a Black and white unit,” vocalist Neville Staple told Rolling Stone. “At the time there was a lot of racism happening. So we just thought, ‘Well, we went to school with Black and white guys. Instead of fighting and calling people names, let’s work together.’ So we combined black music with punk. We just mixed the two cultures.”

It’s a thrilling mix. “Nite Klub” is splendidly wired, and “Stupid Marriage” romps all over the place, a caffeinated puppy of a song. They do right by ska standards, as demonstrated by the smooth, loose rendering of Robert “Dandy” Thompson’s “A Message to You Rudy” and the jittery run-through of Rufus Thomas’s “Do the Dog.” Originals “(Dawning of a) New Era,” “Gangsters,” and “Too Much Too Young” show that the Specials can do just as well as their esteemed predecessors in crafting potent tunes. The Specials is a blast.

198. Timbuk 3, Greetings from Timbuk 3 (1986)

A married couple and musicians operating in Madison, Wisconsin, Pat and Barbara K. MacDonald had a decision to make when the Essentials, the blues-rock band they were in together, broke up. They could try to assemble another group of like-minded collaborators, or they could decide to stick with their own household, hopefully reducing the friction that comes from competing visions. They went with the latter, supplementing their live performances with prerecorded tracks played off of a big, clunky boombox they dubbed T3. For the band, they took the name Timbuk 3.

Not long after, the MacDonalds relocated to Austin, Texas, attracted by the booming music scene there. That same scene attracted the attention of the producers of The Cutting Edge, a monthly program surveying all that was hip and off the beaten path that I.R.S. Records made for MTV. The Cutting Edge did a whole episode focused on Austin, and Timbuk 3 got their turn on the show. When the band’s demo made its way into the hands of record executives with I.R.S., a contract was proffered. The band was sent to the studio with Dennis Herring, a session guitarist who was just shifting into the producer role, and they emerged with their full-length debut, Greetings from Timbuk 3.

To just about everyone’s surprise, the album had a real hit on it. Opening track “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” is essentially a satire of Cold War profiteers who blithely risk the annihilation of the human race because there’s good money in nuclear weaponry. That meaning zinged over the head of most listeners, who instead heard a mild novelty song about cheery American confidence. Released as the album’s first single, the song was a constant presence of MTV, charted in the Billboard Top 40, and generally inserted itself into the broader culture to startling degree. Presumably that wouldn’t have been the case had Pat MacDonald not scrapped initial lyrics that described a Reagan disciple as a “flaming fascist.”

The intellectual intent is clearer elsewhere on the album. “Life Is Hard” might have its own odd, borderline inscrutable lyrics (“Can’t get to heaven on roller skates/ Can’t take a taxi cab to Timbuktu”), but the main thesis is plain as can be (“Life is hard/ Can’t buy happiness no matter what you do”). “Just Another Movie” is even more deeply cynical: “Presidential elections are planned distractions/ To divert attention from the action behind the scenes/ Like a game of chess when the house is a mess/ Or a petty money squabble when your marriage is in trouble.”

All of this is delivered as worldly wise folk rock that has a mist of the unorthodox around it. “Hairstyles and Attitudes” comes close to the buoyancy of They Might Be Giants, but the album largely locks into a Phil-Ochs-for-a-fading-millennium zone. “I Need You” is a crafty love song (“The road’s full of dangerous curves/ And we don’t wanna go too fast/ We may not make it first/ But I know we’re gonna make it last”), and “Cheap Black & White” is like foundational rock ‘n’ roll as spruced up with post-punk verve. About the only place where the album falters is when Barbara K tries out some disaffected, white-gal rapping on “Shame On You.” That infraction is forgivable, though. It was the mid-nineteen-eighties; lots of performers made that particular mistake.

The unexpected success of their first single was both boon and blemish for Timbuk 3. Much as they were stuck being defined by a slightly goofy song that was widely misinterpreted, they also picked up enough cachet with their record label to be a little more ambitious with their next album. Timbuk 3 aimed to demonstrate that they were more than the three and a half minutes that everyone knew.

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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