College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #149 to #147

149. XTC, Black Sea (1980)

“We find that once you’ve done something, you’ve tried it and you should move on,” Andy Partridge, frontman of XTC, declared not long after the release of Black Sea, the band’s fourth studio album. “Actually, we’re moving sideways. In fact, now that we’re discovering melody and such, we’re regressing.”

Working on the second straight album with producer Steve Lillywhite, XTC were deep in the evolution from the brash, punk-inflected band they started our as to the maestros of elegantly layered pop pop music they would become. Although they were still touring, Partridge’s aversion to the grind of it was locking in. He was already openly longing to make XTC a studio-only band, in the manner of the Beatles in the latter half of their transformative tenure. Accordingly, Black Sea is rich and complex, the material still carrying the echoes of some key forebears, such as the Kinks and the previously mentioned foursome that was fab. For all the retro shimmer, the album is also fearlessly forward-thinking, determinedly reinventing pop for the decade ahead. I don’t think a lot of other artists took what XTC did here and built on it. I’m not sure they could have. The group was in their own dazzling orbit.

The album opens with “Respectable Street,” a lushly crafted satirical swipe at suburban banality and hypocrisy (“It’s in the order of their hedgerows/ It’s in the way their curtains open and close/ It’s in the look they give you down their nose/ All part of decency’s jigsaw I suppose”). The cut properly sets the tone for the album to come: delicate, exuberant music intertwined with barbed, lyrics. “Generals and Majors” is sprightly as it laments militaristic mindsets (“Generals and Majors always/ Seem so unhappy ‘less they got a war”), and the chugging “Towers of London,” the album’s second single, offers a belated elegy for the impoverished toilers deemed expendable as the British empire erected their totems of progress (“Towers of London/ When they had built you/ Did you watch over the men who fell”). There are admittedly points where the lobbed darts veer well from the bullseye; Partridge has long disavowed “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me),” conceding that its intended satire of chauvinism just comes across as genuine retrograde hostility. Mostly, though, the album is remarkable for it fullness and vibrancy.

“Love At First Sight” is splendidly prickly, and “Burning with Optimism’s Flame” is a fine blast of fidgety pop. Befitting the band’s happily acknowledged appreciation of the Beatles at the precise point the expanded their minds, “No Language in Our Lungs” has a little Revolver pre-psychedelic glimmer to the guitar parts. “Travels in Nihilon” brings is all together, delivering a massive mountain of layered sound to close out Black Sea. It is fitting forecast for the future of XTC. It would still take a bit of time, but major changes were coming for the collection of tunesmiths from Swindon.

148. Ultravox, Quartet (1982)

Ultravox were tired of feeling safe. That’s what the band’s frontman, Midge Ure, offered in explanation for why they parted ways with producer Conny Blank, who’d overseen three straight albums, including their commercial breakthrough, Vienna. They didn’t exactly downgrade, though. The vacancy behind he the board was filled by no less than George Martin. Admittedly, the producer came to the project off of mediocrities from UFO and Little River Band, but he was still a living legend who had a legitimate ownership stake in the elusive, clamorously claimed “fifth Beatle” title. This was precisely the situation that held the promise of creative rejuvenation and commercial celebration.

Wanting to take proper advantage of the acclaimed knob-spinner in the booth, the gents in Ultravox made a point of working up the new songs to their satisfaction before stepping into the studio. They set up a rehearsal space and spent months hashing through ideas, laboring their way to the finished tunes. Everything on the album that resulted, Quartet, certain has the feel of a carefully crafted pop epic. “Reap the Wild Wind” has a grand, sugary sweep, and “Serenade” in awash in the high-camp drama of Soft Cell at their most florid. “Hymn” is about as slick as they come, which might help temper the lyrics’ appropriation of biblical language to take a few swipes at religion: “Give me all the/ Storybook told me/ The faith and the glory/ ‘Til my kingdom comes.”

One of the stated goals Ultravox had in making the album was to bring a little more hardness to their sound. No one is mistaking the band for Black Sabbath on Quartet, but there is a discernible uptick in edge. “Visions in Blue” starts as a ballad of romanticized gloom with some creeping synth disco in the middle, and “We Came to Dance” laces in a post-krautrock vibe. “The Song (We Go)” closes the album with a powerhouse flex of synthesized rhythms.

The album continued Ultravox’s streak of hits in the U.K.: It was their third straight Top 10 album and yielded four singles that peaked in the Top 20. Quartet was also the group’s most commercially successful release in the U.S., peaking at #61 on the Billboard album chart, more than fifty places higher than any other of their LPs. Still feeling those headwinds, Ultravox decided for their next album that they’d learned all they could from these outside producers. It was time to take the task of producing their music into their own hands.

147. Wire, A Bell Is a Cup… Until It Is Struck (1988)

As college radio programmers tried to figure out what to make of the new pop-friendly style Wire adopted after they reunited in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, the band didn’t allow for a whole lot of time to make those adjustments in perception. Following the release of the 1987 album, The Ideal Copy, their first full-length studio effort in nearly a decade, Wire kept releasing new music as a steady clip. Their follow-up, A Bell Is a Cup… Until It Is Struck hit record store bins and music director mail bins only a year or so after its immediate predecessor.

Working again with producer Gareth Jones, arguably best known to that point for his studio support on Depeche Mode records, surveys Wire’s dabbling in dance music and helps them steer into that glittery curve. “Silk Skin Paws” aligned with other askew British pop of the moment, such as Icicle Works, and “The Finest Drops” suggests Echo and the Bunnymen with a grumpier brand of gumption. Despite the grousing from a few naysayers at the time, Wire still embeds post-punk intensity in the tracks: “The Queen of Ur and the King of Um” has the form’s trademark insistent rhythm, and “Follow the Locust” is richly dark in its probing wanderlust.

Getting too deep into gauging the level of transformation on the album can distract from noticing that A Bell Is a Cup… Until It Is Struck is filled with lovely, precise songs. The chiming single ”Kidney Bingos” is so winning that it can almost enthrall the listener into thinks its stream-of-consciousness nonsense lyrics are utterly logical (“Gold street spy fleet scandal food poor treat/ Fire run club gun rule mob burn some”). Even when Wire peppers in clanging, challenging noise bursts, as on the ballad “A Public Place,” the overall impression is that the cut’s craft is meticulous.

A Bell Is a Cup… Until It Is Struck was surely the most accessible Wire album to date, and it might still deserve that designation, even with the mountain of music they’ve released since. Of course, Wire at their most accessible still aren’t particularly commercial. Although it registered high on the U.K. indie charts and got loads of college radio airplay, the album had no crossover tread. The cult heroes remained with the more faithful and adaptable members of their adherents.

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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