College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #164 to #162

164. Billy Bragg, Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986)

“I’m a firm believer that by the third album, you have to show some signs of progression,” Bragg said. “With the first couple of LPs, you’re just carving out your own little niche, aren’t you? But by the third, you should be developing on those ideas.”

For Billy Bragg, showing some signs of progression involved bringing a few more musicians into the studio with him. For his first few releases, Bragg had mostly presented himself as a proper folk troubadour, not sounding much different than he did when he used to walk around with his acoustic guitar and a couple speakers towering over his shoulders to amplifier his words of determined protest. On Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, he employs the services of several cohorts, including vocalist Kirsty MacColl, who took a version of Bragg’s “A New England” into the U.K. Top 10 a couple years earlier, and guitarist Johnny Marr, on loan from the Smiths. Without compromising his signature sound one iota, Bragg deliver a set of tracks that have a smart pop fullness. They’re songs that call upon to listener to raise their firsts and bop around on their tapping toes at the same time.

Bragg is equally affecting raising raising a political ruckus, as on the forceful “Help Save the Youth of America,” and wrangling with the complicated tangle of romantic emotions, on the soaring, wonderful “Greetings to the New Brunette” (“I’m celebrating my love to you/ With a pint of beer and a new tattoo/ And if you haven’t noticed yet/ I’m more impressionable when my cement is wet”). In the case of the former, Bragg ties himself specifically to a few of his forebears: “Ideology” is based heavily on Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” and “There Is Power in a Union” which borrows the title of Joe Hill’s 1913 paean to the labor movement and nicks its music from George Frederick Root’s Civil War anthem “Battle Cry of Freedom.” A student of all forms of history, Bragg proudly positions himself as part of line rather than some cynical deconstructionist.

Where Bragg takes the longest stride forward in his songwriting is in the emotional potency of storytelling. “The Warmest Room” is evocative in its yearning (“As she made for the door leaving me on the floor/ I wish I’d done biology/ For an urge within me wanted to do it then”), and “Wishing the Days Away” clips through the calendar squares to express loneliness (“Wednesday when you hung up/ It was as much as I could do/ To stop from wishing Thursday/ Would pass so quickly too”). The pinnacle is the incredible “Levi Stubbs’ Tears,” which might be as good of a song as Bragg ever wrote, a novel in a few verses: “And her husband was one of those blokes/The sort that only laughs at his own jokes/ The sort a war takes away/ And when there wasn’t a war he left anyway.”

Talking with the Taxman About Poetry is billed on the front cover as “THE DIFFICULT THIRD ALBUM.” While fully appreciating the wry joke, that assessment is a faulty description for the way the album plays. The thrill of the record is how easy it goes down.

163. INXS, Kick (1987)

INXS had their biggest hit to date with the 1985 album Listen Like Thieves, so they figured the best approach was to try to replicate that success, just make it a little bigger, a little better, a little slicker. They reunited with that album’s producer, Chris Thomas, for the follow-up, and laid down a set of songs written by lead singer Michael Hutchence and guitarist and keyboardist Andrew Farriss. Thomas kept prodding the songwriting team to come up with more and more material, insisting they needed to work until they had the right set of tracks rather than settling for having enough to simply fill two sides of a record. By some reckoning, the album was finished a year later than initially expected because of the insistence of excellence over expediency.

By any assessment of the resulting album, Kick, the extra toil was worth it. Except for the initial assessment of their record label, that is. According to INXS’s manager, Chris Murphy, when Doug Morris, then president of Atlantic Records, gave Kick his first start-to-finish listen, he declared it to be “a piece of shit.” The other two labels that had a piece of the record, WEA and Mercury, had similarly dour appraisals initially. Let’s cut straight to the band’s last laugh: Kick sold more than six million copies and landed four singles in the Billboard Top 10. The first of those singles, the slyly insinuating “Need You Tonight,” went all the way to the top of the chart. (It was helped in its ascent by heavy MTV play, which itself got a boost when the music video was appended with the wispy rap “Mediate,” the song it seques into on the album, in an extra video that spoofed Bob Dylan’s cue card rendering of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from the 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back.) Two of the other hits, “New Sensation” and “Devil Inside,” are equally insinuating while also more propulsive. The fourth, “Never Tear Us Apart,” is nothing less than as masterpiece of majestic romanticism that manages to make the cheesiest lines come across almost Keatsian in their elegance (“We could live/ For a thousand years/ But if I hurt you/ I’d make wine from your tears”), mostly through the conviction of Hutchence’s vocals.

The whole of Kick is a statement of a rock band that’s ready for the biggest of big times. It’s like an audition for an arena tour. Opener “Guns in the Sky” is all riff, and “Mystify,” the album’s fifth and final single, is a grand, swingy come on. Even the album’s cover, a take on the Australian garage rock nugget “The Loved One” by the band the Loved Ones, has an irresistible swagger to it. For the moment, INXS exuded confidence like few other bands in the nineteen-eighties, and it came through in every last groove.

162. fIREHOSE, Ragin’, Full On (1986)

There was no question that the Minutemen would dissolve after the tragic death of frontman D. Boon. The remaining members of the band, bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley, were entirely uncertain about whether they could even continue making music. Watt was so devastated he couldn’t bring himself to attend Boon’s funeral and spent weeks essentially in a stasis of inaction. After overtures from several other musician friends proved fruitless, Kira Roessler, the former bassist for Black Flag, finally got Watt back to work, writing and recording with an impromptu group dubbed Dos. Not long after, Watt heard from Ohio State student Ed Crawford, who’d been given inaccurate information that Watt and Hurley were auditioning for a new guitarist. Crawford found Watt’s number in the phone book. After some convincing, Watt met with Crawford and quickly decided they were simpatico. Watt called Hurley and suggested they join with Crawford to form a new band, and fIREHOSE was born.

Working with producer Ethan James, who held the same position of the seminal Minutemen album Double Nickels on the Dime, fIREHOSE recorded their debut album, Ragin’, Full On. Watt was a credited songwriter on a significant amount of the Minutement catalog, but he misgivings about his new role as the clear leader of the new band, which he addressed directly on the song “Brave Captain”: “Captain, there are doubts/ Regarding/ Your ability/ To lead them.” Watt needn’t have worried. His instincts — and his largesse as a collaborator — are sound as can be on the record.

Like the best Minutemen albums, Ragin’, Full On plays like an extended feat of ragtag invention, with boundaries flouted at every turn. “It Matters” is almost like the Watt version of early Talking Heads anxiousness, and “The Candle and the Flame” feels like a gentle spoofing of R.E.M. (which fIREHOSE would do more overtly one album later). “Perfect Pairs” includes a little cowboy lope right in the heart of it, “This…” is a pleasant folksy amble, and “Relatin’ Dudes to Jazz” is a nifty little rock song. They can get intense on “Chemical Wire” and turn around to craft a song that’s intricately emotional with “Locked In” (“Locked-in to the end/ Hoping to find/ A dream, emotion, world/ Tied together”). The latter is one of several songs on the album co-written by Roessler, who’d be married to Watt within the year (they divorced in 1994, but remained creative partners in Dos and other projects).

On their debut, fIREHOSE carries forward much of the spirit of Minutemen while also establishing their own identity. Greatness comes in many forms, including slumping through the door with an scruffy eagerness to simply be. That’s the sound of Ragin’, Full On.

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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