College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #191 to #189

191. X, See How We Are (1987)

The sixth X record, See How We Are, found the Los Angeles band in transition. On their previous studio outing, Ain’t Love Grand, they undertook a shift that proved faulty. They parted ways with producer Ray Manzarek for the first time, replacing him with Michael Wagner, a specialist in glossy metal. The album was poorly received and didn’t deliver the commercial breakthrough they were clearly striving for. In the aftermath of the record, founding guitarist Billy Zoom left the band.

The remaining members of X — bassist and vocalist John Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka, and drummer D.J. Brokebrake — initially thought they found a replacement for Zoom in Dave Alvin, freshly departed from the Blasters. They went into the studio with the modified lineup and got to work, bringing in another guitarist, former Lone Justice member Tony Gilkyson, not longer after. It was a good thing they had another six-string slinger on hand, because Alvin decided X wasn’t a good match for him after all and quit not long after the recording process was complete. Even so, he had a clear influence on the album, dubbed See How We Are. The band leans in root rock that feels closer to the Blasters than most of what X had laid down previously. Admittedly, that evaluation is mightily influenced by “4th of July,” Alvin’s one songwriting contribution to the album and its clear standout standout. Lean, tough, and heartbreaking, the cut is masterpiece of emotional storytelling: “She turns out the light/ And cries in the dark/ Won’t answer when I call her name.”

As with the preceding album, See How We Are is clear example of X trying to crack the code of mainstream success, but this time they mostly remain true to themselves as they do it. “I’m Lost” is like classic X, raucous and grounded in classic rock ‘n’ roll structures. “In the Time It Takes” romps along, and “Left & Right” is straightforward and satisfying. “Holiday Story” flashes a wry sense of humor in its spirited travelogue (“So I went to Milwaukee/ But they were out of beer”), and “Cyrano de Berger’s Back” takes that classic tale and stuffs it into the sort of urban rock noir that had recently landed an unlikely hit for David + David. The only real misstep is the title song, a bland ballad that angles for Steve Earle’s battered earnestness but comes dangerous close to a power ballad by some hair metal act.

“4th of July” received modest airplay on album rock radio and MTV, but See How We Are was the lowest-charting X album since their sophomore effort, Wild Gift. Maybe they were growing tired of pushing the boulder up the hill to mass indifference. Following the release of the live album Live at the Whisky a Go-Go, in 1988, X announced they were going on hiatus.

190. Dexys Midnight Runners, Too-Rye-Aye (1982)

“It’s not that I like folk music,” Kevin Rowland said upon the release of Too-Rye-Ay, the sophomore studio LP from his band Dexys Midnight Runners. “I could not name a folk artist I like, but I think it would be a good idea for the pop scene to play acoustic music, Celtic music.”

Formed in Birmingham, England, Dexys Midnight Runners had a chart-topping hit in the U.K. with their second single, the Northern soul, horn-driven number “Geno,” released in 1980. Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, the debut album that included the song, was widely lauded and a big-seller in their homeland. It was a tumultuous trek to their follow-up, though, marked by singles that flopped and major changes to the lineup. As Rowland cast around from ideas to revive the act’s prospects, he decided to enhance the orchestral theatricality of the band with the addition of a string section, bringing in Helen O’Hara and Steve Brennan, Those fiddles invited an immersion into the sounds most closely associated with Ireland, and Dexys Midnight Runners started to reel.

“The Celtic Soul Brothers (More Please)” opens the album with a plucky pop jig, quickly setting the tone for the stylistic shift. “All in All (One Last Wild Waltz)” spins with loose persistence, and “Until I Believe in My Soul” is hard trod of a ballad that gives way to jazzy riffing in the middle. They bound through a faithful cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” and at one point take the flouncy hodgepodge “Plan B” directly into “I’ll Show You,” like a revue out of control. Dexys Midnight Runners is throwing a party that doesn’t stop.

And the finale to that hootenanny is “Come On Eileen.” Borrowing riffs from the traditional Irish folk song “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” and the Jimmy James single “A Man Like Me,” the song is exuberant and celebratory, nostalgically reveling in the ribald fumblings of young love (“Aah, come on let’s/ Take off everything/ That pretty red dress”) at the point when confidence hasn’t yet been tamped down by the grind of worldly woes (“These people round here/ Were beaten down, eyes sunk in smoke-dried face/ They’re so resigned to what their fate is/ But not us (No never)/ But not us (Not ever)/ We are far too young and clever”). The song was a global smash, reaching the pinnacle of the pop chart in the U.K., the U.S., and at least five other countries.

Too-Rye-Ay was a major success for Dexys Midnight Runners, but Rowland later expressed his dissatisfaction with it. Although he conceded a couple cuts — “Come On Eileen” included — were fully realized, overall he felt the album was mixed poorly. Taking the album’s fortieth anniversary as a prompt, Rowland remixed everything for a new pressing titled Too-Rye-Ay As It Could Have Sounded.

“I even felt fraudulent promoting the album, because I knew it didn’t sound as good as it should have,” Rowland said when he announced the new version.

189. The Feelies, Only Life (1988)

After mountain a sterling revival with the 1986 album The Good Life, the Feelies were ready to take another step up the precarious ladder of the music biz. Very nearly defunct after their beloved but hard-to-find 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, the New Jersey band was given resuscitative care by a few influential fans. Director Jonathan Demme recommended them to Susan Seidelman when she was looking for cool, unorthodox music score for her 1982 film, Smithereens, and Demme himself hired them to portray a band playing a high school reunion a key turning point in his 1986 movie, Something Wild. And it was Peter Buck, lead guitarist for R.E.M., who produced The Good Earth. On the strength of that comeback record, the Feelies signed a major label contract. Their next album, Only Life, was on A&M Records.

Any thoughts that the Feelies might buff up their sound to take advantage of the added resources of their new corporate home are quickly knocked asunder with any drop of the needle. There’s maybe a touch more crispness to the material on Only Life, but the vibe is solidly the same: jittery rhythms, acoustic-based guitar parts, straightforward yet oblique lyrics, and a sense that the whole endeavor is made the reverberate through an otherwise lackadaisically lovely summer night. “It’s Only Life” and “Away” have an irresistible come-along spirit, and “Too Far Gone” is a breezy blast. There’s nothing all that outward-looking about the material, almost compulsively so, and yet the whole album feels like a charming invitation. This is the music we want to make, every struck chord seems to say, why not hang out with us while we do it.

Accordingly, there’s not a lot of wild variety to Only Life. Going from the tingly ballad“Deep Fascination” to the cool groove of “Higher Ground” to the fervent, jappering jolts of “The Undertow,” all of them clearly kin to one another, is as transformative as it gets. The mold isn’t broken, just warped a touch. What could be a sonic rut for other bands instead sounds pure of purpose for the Feelies. They’re simply perfecting what they know what to do.

Only Life closes with a nod to the Feelies’ most commonly cited forebear. They cover the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” adding just a wisp of post-punk buzz to the classic song. It’s a sly, winning way to end, simultaneously noting that they have clear antecedents and yet asserting that they’re collectively a unique talent, too, sounding timeless and of their moment at once. It’s good enough to make any listener want to flip the record and start all over again.

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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