College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #146 to #144

146. Talking Heads, Remain in Light (1980)

Remain in Light was a difficult album to make,” Chris Frantz, drummer for Talking Heads, told Rolling Stone magazine a few years after the release of LP in question. “We wanted to do something groundbreaking, but we didn’t want to get into fights about it. And a couple of times we did get into fights — musical fights — because somebody wanted to go one way and another person thought it shouldn’t sound like that.”

The groundbreaking act was splintering somewhat at the time. Their preceding album, the astonishingly great Fear of Music, had opened some rifts, many stemming from the increasing tendency of frontman David Byrne to exert control and take arguably outsized credit. Frantz and bassist Tina Weymouth, who had a marital partnership to go with their bandmate status, were frustrated enough that they seriously considered quitting the band. Meanwhile, keyboardist Jerry Harrison took on side projects (including work with Nona Hendryx that planted the seeds for a respectable sideline as a producer) and Byrne started collaborating with Talking Heads producer Brian Eno on the experimental music that would make up the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. These diverging streams came back together and created Remain in Light, which might be the very best album by a phenomenal band, in part because of all the discontentment and outside exploration they all brought back into the studio with them.

Seeking to strengthen the spirit of collaboration, the quartet developing their new material by jamming together, often using the Fear of Music song “I Zimbra” as a jumping off point, in part because it abounded with the the global influences they hoped to bring to the new material. There are times when the process is reasonable apparent in the finished tracks on Remain in Light, such as the heavily rhythm-driven album opener “Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)” and the funky, yearning “Crosseyed and Painless.” Just as often, and more impressively, Talking Heads often stray far from their beginning, blazing a twisty trail until they arrive at a completely unexpected place. “Listening Wind” is enveloping like a murky mist, and “The Overload” is a piercingly evocative sluggish dirge that could stir insurmountable professional jealousy in Bauhaus.

As exciting as the expanded range is on the album, Remain in Light is most notable in the couple of spots where Talking Heads absolutely perfects their established sound and sensibility. “Houses of Motion” is angular and arty, offering the reminder that Talking Heads were once fairly slotted together with the likes of Devo and Gary Numan, even as added layers and complexity offer irrefutable evidence of how much they surpassed those peers. And “Once in a Lifetime” is no less than the quintessential Talking Heads track: edgy, exuberant, satiric, propulsive, sleek, and full to bursting with musical ideas.

Remain in Light sounds like the work of a band in synch, but the same troubles as before continued to dog them. Years later, comparing individual band members’ recollections of the recording process is like watching a Rashomon cut of Behind the Music. More problematically, there was a repeat of the credit kerfuffle from the previous album. Eno returned to produce Talking Heads one last time, and he apparently convinced Byrne that the songwriting for Remain in Light wasn’t necessary a shared process. When the album was released, Byrne and Eno were presented as the chief authors of the songs, with a couple token acknowledgement of Harrison. Initially, Frantz and Weymouth got nothing, a snubbing rectified on future pressings and rereleases. The whole situation left Frantz and Weymouth smarting, though. When they released their first full-length with the side project the Tom Tom Club the following year, the entire band received collective songwriting credit in the liner notes and on the label.

145. Blondie, Eat to the Beat (1979)

With the release of the 1978 album Parallel Lines, Blondie sidled through the scrum of banging bands in the New York city scene and stepped apart from their contemporaries as bonafide stars, largely, though not entirely, on the strength of the worldwide smash “Heart of Glass.” That the song most responsible for their breakthrough was disco through and through, meaning about as far from what bill-sharers such as Ramones and the Dead Boys were up to, stirred a certain amount of ire in a punk-guided atmosphere fixated on purity of purpose. By the time their next album came out, the cover might as well have been a target. Recorded with returning producer Mike Chapman, Eat to the Beat, Blondie’s fourth overall, was met with generally positive reviews that still often took pains to note that it was a letdown in comparison to its immediate predecessor, and the public’s response was similarly tempered. The lukewarm reception was wrong. Eat to the Beat is sharp, dynamic, and as joyfully great as anything in the band’s formidable catalog.

“We never considered ourselves to be punk rockers in anyway,” Blondie singer Deborah Harry said at the time of the album’s release. “Our main objective has always been to play all different kinds of music and develop our own unique sound.”

There are certainly cuts on the album where the band’s origins keeping pace with their blasting punk rocker brethren are evident: “Victor” features Harry caterwauling against big, theatrical rock music, and the title cut is made to set the rafters of CBGB to trembling. But Harry’s assessment holds true. Those blistering moments represent one facet of a band that spins their creative diamond to catch the light in a multitude of ways. “Dreaming” is elegant pop, and “Union City Blue” is a mid-tempo number notable for its vibrantly full melody and Harry’s emotionally rich singing. There’s a sassy grind to “The Hardest Part” and a punchy urgency to “Atomic” that feel utterly unique to Blondie, though not so much as gems of pop reinvention. Rather, they demonstrate offhand mastery of the form that few other acts could even come close to achieving at that moment. It’s like if ABBA had teeth.

At the time, there was a lot of PR effort devoted to stressing that Blondie was the name of the group and not merely a shorthand moniker for their platinum-haired lead singer. It might have been a strike for career longevity or maybe an attempt to assuage the inevitable inner band tensions that came with sudden success, compounded in this instance by heavy drug use. Regardless of the motivation, the attempted repositions of public perception was likely doomed from the start. Harry is such a dominant presence on the record, an irresistible force and an unmovable object all at once. Whether it’s the especially chilly-cool vocal against the fevered agitation of “Accidents Never Happen” or her bulldozing certainty on “Living in the Real World” that somehow gives meaning to lyrics of near-nonsense (“Hey, I’m living in a magazine/ Page to page in my submarine/ Hey now, Cindy, you can’t get to me, need an elevator/ Hey, I’ll see you later”), Harry invariably takes up every inch of the spotlight every time she steps to the microphone.

If the softer-than-expected commercial impact of Eat to the Beat momentarily made it seem as though Blondie’s hitmaker status was fleeting, a soundtrack contribution that arrived a few months later knocked down that theory. Blondie was indeed a group, and they had more hits to come.

144. The Cars, Candy-O (1979)

Elektra Records wanted to leave Candy-O, the sophomore LP from the Cars, on the shelf for a little while. The Boston-based band’s self-titled debut was still moving plenty of units a year after its release, enough that it was still in the upper reaches of the Billboard chart. The label wanted to let that situation play out before another option was on record store shelves, but the Cars had a new set of songs all ready to go. The band, led by frontman Ric Ocasek, pushed back. They wanted their new material out in the world, and they prevailed. The week that Candy-O debuted on the chart, at #48, The Cars was holding on at #22.

Candy-O was an extension of the Cars’ first album, complete with returning Roy Thomas Baker to the producer role. The unexpected quick success for the Cars — including two Top 40 singles and another near miss — led to the familiar strategy of not fixing what ain’t broke. The album is largely a procession of tight, spring pop-rock songs. Opener “Let’s Go,” one of several on the sung by bassist Benjamin Orr instead of Ocasek, is emblematic: tight, ludicrously catchy, and over in three and a half minutes. The lyrics sometimes feel like placeholders they never got around to replacing with cogent ideas (“She’s laughing inside ’cause they can’t refuse/ She’s so beautiful now, she doesn’t wear her shoes/ She never likes to choose”) and its one of too many songs of the era that finds an adult man creepily lusting after a teenaged girl, but those flaws are shunted aside by the burrowing insinuation of the song’s hook and the precision of its playing.

The rest of Candy-O plays like mild variations on the mold. “It’s All I Can Do,” the title cut, and “Dangerous Type” offer mid-tempo pining that’s right in the zone. The band might vary from the poppy plod of “Lust for Kicks” to the racing “Got a Lot on My Head,” but impressive consistency is the main feature. About as close as they come to upending their order is the synth freakout that enlivens “Shoo Be Doo.” Like a well-tuned engine in one of the machines that gives the band their name, the songs on the album absolutely purr.

The Cars established themselves as a band of uncommon solidity. One year later, Candy-O reinforced that impression. And the band was right: There was room for both their first and second albums on the chart.

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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