College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #173 to #171

173. Steve Forbert, Jackrabbit Slim (1979)

Like a lot of young songwriters, Steve Forbert mostly told his own story on his debut LP, Alive on Arrival. A year later, when it was time to deliver his sophomore effort, the Meridian, Mississippi native aimed to expand his palette.

“The second album is not as autobiographical as the first one,” Forbert explained at the time. “Where Alive on Arrival had the theme of a country kid in the big city, this is more of a straightforward collection of songs with an underlying autobiographical story. Musically, we took basically the same approach as on the first album. I try to keep the instrumentation nice and simple.”

Like practically every young, white, male performer with an acoustic guitar and an inclination towards melodic storytelling during the nineteen-seventies, Forbert was given the “new Dylan” tag. Even as his shrugged it off with aw-shucks humility, Forbert was also shrewd enough to lean into. There are ample examples on that second LP, Jackrabbit Slim, of Forbert evoking Bob Dylan, albeit a more mainstream-friendly version of the cantankerous wordsmith. “The Sweet Love That You Give (Sure Goes a Long, Long Way)” is like The Basement Tapes as recorded in a penthouse apartment. Forbert also veers into the territory of Bruce Springsteen on “Say Goodbye to Little Jo” and Paul Simon with “Complications.” To his credit, it mostly feels like he’s making a valiant effort at keeping pace with the songwriting heroes of era rather than simply swiping from. He comes closest to pulling even with them on the genuinely dandy “Romeo’s Tune,” which became a Top 40 hit, peaking just outside of the Top 10.

The strongest track on the record, and the one that indicates where Forbert would find real career longevity, is “January 23–30, 1978,” a lean number about goofing around with his old buddies during a weeklong homecoming (“Frozen trees ‘neath a billion stars/ Seven friends jammed in Robby’s car/ High as kites and wild and gone/ Drunk as well and laughing loud”). It has the heartrending sincerity, keen attention to detail, and emotionally alert performance that distinguished the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley. Climbing the pop charts is often a fleeting skill, but songwriting that keen is the mark of an artist built to last.

172. Iggy Pop, Blah-Blah-Blah (1986)

Iggy Pop’s whole world had changed in the four years since his 1982 album, Zombie Birdhouse. That record was Pop’s first solo outing that failed to chart, and he was fast running out of money and chances. Luckily, what he still had in abundance was the support of a great friends who happened to be one of the biggest rock stars on the planet. David Bowie covered Pop’s song “China Girl” on the 1983 smash hit album Let’s Dance and released that cover as a single. It made it all the way into the Billboard Top 10, providing Pop with a previously unheard of influx of cash from the songwriting royalties. Bowie compounded that professional boon to Pop by covering three more songs on his next album, Tonight, and bringing Pop into the studio to work on additional material and provide some backing vocals. Suddenly more financially stable than he’d ever been, Pop addressed his substance abuse issues (though he didn’t quite go all the way clean at that point), took acting classes that turned into some modest gigs on the big screen, and generally stayed away from the grind of making his own albums.

Pop edged back to his main vocation first by connecting with Steve Jones, the former Sex Pistols guitarist, to write new songs and lay them down as demos. Bowie heard the material and was enthusiastic enough that he offered to co-produce an album for Pop. The result was Blah-Blah-Blah, issued by A&M Records, a new label for Pop. The long layoff meant the album was invariably seen as a comeback. It was also, by Pop’s own admission, a deliberate attempt to finally deliver some hits of his own.

“I don’t know about the hit formula I hear — you just need to have a silly title, sing in the right key, and have good production — but I do want my music brought to people’s attention, and that means radio,” Pop told the Detroit Free Press at the time of the album’s release.

The clearest attempt to assembled the three ingredients Pop identifies is surely “Real Wild Child (Wild One),” a cover of a Johnny O’Keefe tune from the nineteen-fifties. Buffed up to ludicrous, gleaming excess with nineteen-eighties studio knowhow, the track served as the album’s lead single, becoming a modest hit on rock radio and MTV, but with a bizarrely strong global reach (it made the Top 10 in the U.K. and topped the chart in New Zealand, in between Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”). In terms of singles, the cover was preceded by “Cry for Love,” which was less successful commercial but is probably the closest Pop and his cohorts get their hit-making alchemy to work, if only because it’s the most effectively Bowie-esque cut on the album.

Most of Blah-Blah-Blah is dire. “Isolation” sounds like the Alan Parsons Project when they went all-in on mainstream pop (“I need some lovin’/ Like a body needs a soul/ I need some lovin’/ Like a fastball needs control”) and “Baby, It Can’t Fall” is shocking close to a Huey Lewis and the News number. Winners & Losers” utterly empty hard rock, and “Shades” is downright mind-spinning in its badness as it explores a romantic relationship through consideration of gifted sunglasses (“These shades say something/ I’ll bet they cost a lot
I hope I don’t break ’em/ I hope we don’t break up”).

If Blah-Blah-Blah was viewed dimly by Pop’s most ardent longtime disciples, those who understandably consider the Stooges’ Fun House to be among the greatest triumphs of recorded rock ‘n’ roll, the album was more of less exactly what the record company wanted. When Pop started preparing for the follow-up, A&M execs celebrated when he announced he was going to work with Jones again. They might have cheered too soon.

171. The The, Infected (1986)

“I wanted to veer the songs away from myself,” Matt Johnson, the driving creative force behind the band The The, explained on the cusp of the release of act’s sophomore album, Infected. “I’m trying to be more political without being dogmatic or pedantic.”

Aligned with other English rock and pop acts at the time, Johnson was preoccupied with the dire state of his homeland under the zealously right-wing leadership of Margaret Thatcher. “Heartland” aims its ire at those in leadership who allowed the country to mire into stasis under the misbegotten belief that it was still a true leader in Europe (“This is the land where nothing changes/ The land of red buses and blue blooded babies/ This is the place, where pensioners are raped/ And the hearts are being cut from the welfare state”). Johnson also looks beyond his immediate borders with “Sweet Bird of Truth,” a track marked by a lot of sonic screwing around in the manner of Thomas Dolby. It draws its political inspiration from U.S. interventions, both overt and covert, in the Middle East, although sometimes fairly obliquely: “Time was when I seemed to know/ Just like any other GI Joe/ Should I cry like a baby, or die like a man.”

Infected never lapses into the op-ed didacticism Johnson was worried about, mostly because the construction of the individual cuts is so lavishly dense. More than fifty musicians are present on the album, which results in incredibly intricate pop that is nearly unparalleled in the era. “Out of the Blue (Into the Fire)” is absolutely wild, the title cut is a headlong thriller, and “The Mercy Beat” is seven and a half minutes of pop that’s juicy, loopy, and yet tightly controlled, like Sisters of Mercy with the goth brightened away. Johnson is so far ahead of the curve that “Slow Train to Dawn” is a duet with Neneh Cherry, three years before she hung in a buffalo stance and briefly wrenched all of pop music in the direction of her fiery preferences. All this excess can be a dangerous dance; “Angels of Deception” pirouettes right on the razor’s edge of self-parody. That acknowledged, laudable magnificence is more often the result.

Infected is probably the creative peak of The The. Although subsequent albums peaked higher on the U.K. charts, Infected might be the commercial peak, too. It earned gold record status in the U.K. and climbed higher on the U.S. charts than any other album billed to the act. For a brief, deliriously delightful moment, the adventurously hopeful could convince themselves that The The was truly the future of pop music.

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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