College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #185 to #183

185. Big Country, Steeltown (1984)

Big Country has the kind of debut album a rock act longs for. Boosted in part by the surging influence of the new cable network MTV, The Crossing and its single “In a Big Country” were major hits, both more present in the culture than the official chart numbers would suggest (both the album and the single crossed into the Top 20 in the U.S.). The Scottish band was suddenly, solidly established as an artist to watch, and every expectation was that they would grow and grow. Enlivened by the initial support and the keen interest in what they might do next, Big Country went back into the studio with the similarly ascendent producer of their debut, Steve Lillywhite, and a set of songs that made a statement, even if frontman Stuart Adamson downplayed the political fire present in their new set of songs.

“I think ‘political’ is a word critics use,” Adamson said not long after the release of Big Country’s sophomore album. “I write about things I see going on, and that situation actually happened in an English town. The government opened a big steel mill, encouraged thousands of people to move to this town, then closed it down. So you had thousands of these migrant workers just sort of stuck there.”

The situation in question was spun by Adamson into the song “Steeltown,” which also provided the album’s name. The track has a big, booming rock sound, as if calibrated to suit the arenas they were sure to soon haunt and the lyrics are direct and clear in their storytelling: “Here was a home for the lost and scared/ Out of the yards and dry docks/ The call of the steel that would never stop/ There was a refuge for those who dared.” It’s a kindred to the material on Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., which was released just a few months earlier, but not nearly as insightful or accomplished. As is the case on most of the album, Big Country seems to be trying on the costume of big rock performers only to find it’s ill-fitting.

“Flame of the West” is like U2 raised on prog rock, and “The Great Divide” is a slab of hollow grandeur. “East of Eden” was released as the lead single, and it’s notably, like an attempt at recapturing previous potency without the conviction to actually pull it off. “Where the Rose Is Sown” is a better attempt at tapping the fruitful well, the track’s anxious guitar parts and clarion-call vocals carrying some of the lover’s-voice-that-fires-the-mountainside urgency and taking it one mile marker further. There’s an implicit argument on the record that Big Country might have benefited from straying further from expectations: “Just a Shadow” is intriguing in the ways it forecasts the controlled indie pop of a generation later. The musically and lyrically mushy “Girl with Grey Eyes” is a more emblematic track, though.

Steeltown was a quick hit in the U.K., topping the album chart. But it faded fast and failed to catch on elsewhere. In the U.S., the album topped out at #80 on Billboard and none of the singles charted. The relative disappointment of the album evidently prompted some creative soul searching within the band. For their next outing, Big Country tried to reinvent themselves by embracing their Scottish heritage.

184. Sonic Youth, Sister (1987)

“People are disappointed these days when a band doesn’t espouse any mass politics,” guitarist Lee Ranaldo said around the time his band Sonic Youth released their fourth studio album, Sister. “We’re into politics of individuality, the politics of art. Our sound is different from the usual three-chord stuff. There’s a kind of unlimited potential in it.”

If Sister represents Sonic Youth exploring that potential, it also finds the band firmly engaging in refining it in an extension of the process that really began in earnest on the preceding album, EVOL. The New York quartet had already decisively proved they knew how to make noise — sometimes implementing novel modifications to their instruments in order to do it — and now they were ready to show that noise could be controlled, harnessed, finessed, maybe even made oddly pretty or, gasp, approachable. There’s still plenty of material sure to leave the unsuspecting punch-drunk after the sounds blast through their headphones or radio speakers — the gnarled fervor of “(I Got a) Catholic Block” or the thunderous, intense album closer “White Cross” — but the dynamics of the record recede from pure abrasion to stake out more complex territory.

The members of Sonic Youth were evidently reading a lot of Philip K. Dick when they wrote the songs for Sister, and the album is sometimes described as a loose concept album inspired by the offbeat author’s works. Finding the story thread of whatever tech-tinged Tommy might be lurking on the album requires a more dedicated parsing of the jagged lyrics (on the careening, pulsing “Stereo Sanctity”: “I’m keeping my commission to faith’s transmission/ Two speakers dream the same and skies turn red”) than I’m compelled to undertake. Musically, the album moves with the paranoiac intensity that smacks of Dick, so maybe hearing that is enough appreciation of the influence. Sonic Youth makes a broader statement of how they both fit into and stand apart from the New York no wave embers they were baptized in, and borrowing some of the agitated intellectualism of Dick is part of that assertion of creative self.

Tethers to the punk scene can be discerned on the album in the avalanche of “Tuff Gnarl” and, more explicitly, in a cover of “Hot Wire My Heart,” originally by the trailblazing band Crime. That Sonic Youth can warp those same instincts into a cut such as “Beauty Lies in the Eye,” which is like a fever dream narrated by bassist Kim Gordon, is revelatory. First impressions might lead to conclusion that there was only so much range Sonic Youth had, only so many ways they could grow. So much of Sister counters that impression, instead backing Ranaldo’s assessment. There were no limits.

183. Squeeze, East Side Story (1981)

Keyboardist Jools Holland left Squeeze shortly after the release of their third album, Argybargy. As a founding member of the group and occasional lead vocalist, Holland required a significant figure as a replacement, and Squeeze managed exactly that when they enlisted Paul Carrack, formerly of Ace and Roxy Music, to join the lineup. Carrack proved to be a very on-again-off-again members of the group over the years, but he also wound up as maybe the most famous voice the band ever had because his one lead vocal turn on his first album with Squeeze, East Side Story, was for the mid-tempo recounting of relationship wreckage caused by infidelity “Tempted.” A modest hit initially, the song had a remarkable afterlife, only building in popularity until its memorable use in the mid-nineties film Reality Bites cemented it as one of the anthems of Generation X.

“Tempted” is arguably the acme of East Side Story, but the whole album is a triumph, certainly the finest realization of Squeeze’s fleeting but potent pop genius on record. Produced by Elvis Costello and Roger Béchirian after the band receded from an ambitious plan for a double album with star producers handling one side apiece, East Side Story zings between variations in style like a teenybopper flipping through the beloved 45s in a day-glo record carrier. “Mumbo Jumbo” bangs along joyfully, “Labelled with Love” has a gentle country lope, “Messed Around” is new-wave rockabilly, and “Is That Love?” is punchy as the sugary fruit concoction found in a school dance’s crystal serving bowl. “In Quintessence” is springy, and “Heaven” shivers with the esoteric intensity of Robyn Hitchcock, a comparison admittedly coaxed into being by the halting cadence of Chris Difford’s vocals as much as anything else.

Versatile as East Side Story is, there’s a Beatle-esque sensibility throughout it, as if Squeeze is deliberately trying to capture the endless magic spun into being by the most important pop band of all time. “There’s No Tomorrow” has the psychedelic soul of late-period Beatles, and “F-Hole” is infused with the sardonic tunefulness of solo John Lennon. “Vanity Fair” can be heard as Squeeze’s version of “Eleanor Rigby,” albeit with a certain nineteen-eighties plasticine modernity sluiced into the eloquent crooning about a forlorn life: “Her beauty is as deep as her skin/ Keeps her eyebrows in a tobacco tin.” It’s to Squeeze’s credit that none of this feels derivative. Instead, the material is alive with the exuberance of happy ambition realized perfectly. East Side Story is about as good as Squeeze could get, and it’s very good indeed.

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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