College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #152 to 150

152. Joe Jackson, Look Sharp! (1979)

David Ian Jackson was around one year into his scholarship-funded studies at the Royal Academy of Music when he decided classical music composition wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. He knew music was the proper outlet for him, disinclined as he was toward the sort of office or factory drudgery that was his chief vocational alternative. It was the genre that was wrong. He dropped out and started playing piano in clubs and with various local bands. Somewhere along the way, joshing about his resemblance to the nineteen-sixties British television character Joe 90 permanently erased Jackson’s given first name in favor of a nickname that gave him an alliterative, more memorable pseudonym for the stage. Not long after, his demos led to a recording contract with A&M Records, and the first week of 1979 brought the release of Look Sharp!, the debut album billed to Joe Jackson.

Look Sharp! was no seismic disruption of pop music’s tectonic plates at that moment. Jackson was quickly, persistently, and accurately compared to both Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, and he later acknowledged that he was definitely responding to the scene that surrounded him on his first couple of records. What Jackson might have lacked in originality had overwhelming compensation in the riveting precision of his songwriting. Look Sharp! is a procession of tight pop gems played with a level of gregarious ease that set Jackson apart from those immediate contemporaries (to that point, Parker always sounded like he was tied into daunting knots, and Costello was the guy who tried to kick the doors down with every last song). It’s hard to imagine anyone else in that era figuring out how to express embittered romantic jealousy with the same sort of soaring celebratory defiance Jackson lands on in the hit “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” (“Look over there (where?)/ There, here comes Jeanie with her new boyfriend/ They say that looks don’t count for much/ If so, there goes your proof”).

There are far-edge radar blips of the Jackson’s later stylistic expansiveness — the squeaky reggae rhythm on “Fools in Love,” the jazzy interludes on the otherwise propulsive title cut — but Look Sharp! is mostly defined by its mastery of the pop song form as the nineteen-seventies was breathing its last. There’s a post-punk sharpness to the guitars on album opener “One More Time,” as if Jackson wanted to provide an immediate fedora tip to the prevailing London sound of the moment, but he quickly shifts into cleaner, shinier material. Of course, that approachable pop was a deceptive delivery mechanism for some acidic cynicism, whether aimed at the exploitative, manipulative British rags on “Sunday Papers” (“Brother’s headin’ that way now, I guess/ He just read somethin’, made his face turn blue/ Well I got nothin’ ‘gainst the press/ They wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true”) or the heteronormative oppression of adhering to societal relationship expectations on “Happy Loving Couples” (“Reading Ideal Homes magazine/ Want to be, want to really be what my friends pretend to be/ Be it in my own good time/ Being kind to myself till I become one of two of a kind”).

Mostly, Look Sharp! is a blast. As Jackson and his crack band burn through the rollicking “Baby Stick Around” and the equally spirited “Got the Time,” it’s like an artist with pent up possibility is putting absolutely everything they’ve got into the record’s grooves, uncertain if they’ll get a chance to do this again. Jackson got to do it again, plenty more times. In fact, his next album hit record shops before music buyers had cause to replace the calendar on the wall.

151. Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, Conscious Party (1988)

Ziggy Marley hadn’t yet his teenage years when he appeared on the first single by the Melody Makers, a group also populated with several of his siblings. To be precise, that release was credit to Melody Maker, singular. “Children Playing in the Street” was written by Marley’s father, reggae legend Bob Marley, and its proceeds were promised to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in recognition of the organization’s declaration that 1979 was the International Year of the Child. A Melody Makers full-length followed a few years later, this time with the expanded billing “featuring Ziggy Marley.” The best known iteration of the band’s billing hit in 1986 with the release of Hey World, officially the debut album of Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers.

For most music fans, though, the act moved to a prominent part of the cultural stage with the release of Conscious Party, their first for Virgin Records. Produced by Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth during a busy time for their bands Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, the renowned rhythm section helped give Marley’s reggae a cheery, approachable lilt. Its roots were clearly still in Jamaica, but its branches swayed to the cool-down thrum of a dockside disco at dawn. The approach was just right for the moment, and Marley went somewhere his pop could never quite manage: into the Billboard Top 40, if only barely, peaking at #39 (the single’s presence was far more significant than that number suggests, largely because of the loving embrace of MTV). The album’s lead single, “Tomorrow People,” was a hit, its musical buoyancy providing a soft surface for some fairly tough-minded lyrics: “Tomorrow you say you’re gone and you’re not coming back/ If there is no love in your heart oh now/ There will never be hope for you.”

Over and over across the album, the music offers easy entry and the lyrics deliver a punch. The island lope of “Have You Ever Been to Hell” is scalded by the lyrics “Don’t you know/ Is there vanity/ And inhumanity?/ Cries from the guilty sayin’/ Who’s gonna save you soul?” Marley was nineteen years old at the time of the album’s release. Like a lot of teenagers barging into adulthood, he simply had a lot to say about the state of the world. “Lee and Molly” is uncompromising in addressing the prejudices face by those in an interracial romance, and “Tumblin’ Down” locks into a tight groove as it dispenses metaphor-heavy geopolitical commentary.

On Conscious Party, Marley stays true to himself and his musical heritage, accepting that comparisons to his father were inevitable. About as bold as is gets is the weird little fusion-jazz undercurrent on the relentlessly catchy “What’s True.” If there’s one thing that Marley’s famous name gave him an understanding of, it was legacy. He didn’t want to break away from his cultural history, he wanted to exalt it and make a record for the ages.

“A record is a message, timeless,” he explained at the time, and he made sure Conscious Party fit that description.

150. Wire, The Ideal Copy (1987)
“There’s always been a concern within this group of making music that’s timeless,” explained Colin Newman, vocalist and guitarist for Wire, upon the release of the band’s comeback album, The Ideal Copy. “Wire was adopted at some point by the kind of people who felt this was noncommercial music or hip, whatever. But Wire has always tried to be accessible. There’s no point to being experimental rock. It’s irrelevant. There is no point in working in a public medium and not getting something across to as many people as possible.”

Eight years had passed since the previous Wire album, the blistering, brilliant 154. Band lore holds that the dynamic musical ideas on that earlier album is what precipitated the lengthy hiatus from working together. Their competing instincts were too divergent, and the various members needed to strike out and do their own thing for a time, getting all that non-cohesive exploration out their respective systems. Newman released solo albums, guitarist Bruce Gilbert and bassist Graham Lewis teamed for a few different projects (including the bands Cupol and Dome), and drummer Robert Grey (still billed as Robert Gotobed at the time) mostly seemed to lay low. They reunited not to revisit past glories, but because they were ready to move forward together as a unit. Album opener “Point of Collapse” asserts the rejection of staid duplication immediately. The jagged post-punk of bygone records is mere erasure. If there’s any comparison to be made to an album issued in 1979, it’s more the shift into disco mode Roxy Music took on Manifesto, though Wire being Wire means the danceable beats are scored with delirious oddity.

Much as The Ideal Copy does represent a new direction for Wire, the album overall isn’t quite as adventurously different and committed to dance-track grooves as some of the group’s later efforts. Mostly, the material is fuller and more complex. Wire has moved on from jabs to roundhouse punches. “Ahead” has grand intensity in its just-cryptic-enough raunchiness (“Standard rewards in corners/ Is full-board in new quarters/ Kneeling for pleasure/ Ensures a good time”), and “Feed Me” proceeds with a majestic clang and clatter. They deliver thrilling art rock with “Ambitious” and invent and discard goth-surf in the span of “Over Theirs.” The elusive alchemy of Wire in this moment is maybe most plausibly reverse engineered from the comparatively spare “Still Shows,” which manages to be both brittle and warm; I hear a forecast of Soul Coughing in it.

Wire didn’t reassemble with fleeting attention. They came back to work. The band was exceedingly prolific in this iteration, releasing six albums in five years. The Ideal Copy was a fine reintroduction. As far as college radio programmers were concerned, the next album was a notch or two (or three) more impressive.

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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