143. The Jam, Sound Affects (1980)
As was becoming the norm, Paul Weller was not quite ready to go when he arrived at the studio to record the Jam’s fifth album, Sound Affects. Spurred in part by record company and management eagerness, the band was putting out new music at a bullet train rate, and Weller, though a mightily prolific songwriter, was having some difficulty keeping up. By Weller’s own estimation, he had only three or four songs ready to go when the band toted their instruments into London’s The Town House recording studio. That same situation arguably compromised the quality of the band’s preceding album, Setting Sons. This time, Weller’s considerable skills were up to the task. A sizable contingent, Weller among them, consider Sound Affects to be the best of the Jam’s studio albums.
“We kept to our fundamental sound but stretched it a bit,” Weller said later.
Weller’s succinct assessment is spot on. Sound Affects is the mod sound of the Jam taken to its grand apex. “Pretty Green” hits hard and then is steady like a pulse, and “Set the House Ablaze” is takes the tense, bristly energy of post-punk and applies it seamlessly to the mod rock that is the band’s bailiwick. Weller’s talent as a tuneful chronicler of British middle-class life was bested only by Ray Davies, the patron saint of the form, and it’s in full evidence on “Man in the Corner Shop” (“Puts up the closed sign does the man in the corner shop/ Serves his last then he says goodbye to him/ He knows it is a hard life/ But it’s nice to be your own boss really”) and maybe even more potently on “That’s Entertainment”, which pillories the news media for distracting the masses with sensationalistic coverage (“Days of speed and slow time Monday’s/ Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday/ Watching the news and not eating your tea/ A freezing cold flat and damp on the walls”).
The U.S. release of the album rearranges the track list, but only a teensy bit. In a fitting, amusing touch, the cut “Start!” is moved to the very beginning of the album. Its funky bass line and easygoing intensity borrow heavily from the Beatles’ “Taxman,” which simultaneously offered a smack of familiarity to an audience that was less familiar in the band and maybe, just maybe, served as noticed as to why the slow-adapting Yanks should be paying attention. These fellas, the argument could go, are as impressive as the mop-tops who were welcomed as invaders a generation earlier. Who wouldn’t want to be affected by these sounds?
142. Lou Reed, Mistrial (1986)
Lou Reed was already at legend status by the middle of the nineteen-eighties, and that storied reputation was being fortified by the legion of acclaimed acts that cited his group the Velvet Underground as a formative influence. The notion was taking hold that while not that many people bought Velvet Underground albums, every last person who did went out and formed a band. Despite that esteem, Reed was little more than a phantom on the pop charts. There was a sense, though, that he might be able to shift that trend, based on the glimmer of warmth that greeted the single “I Love You, Suzanne,” off of the 1984 album New Sensations. Two years later, Reed’s next studio album, Mistrial, seemed to be a little feint in the perceived direction of the marketplace, an offered assurance to the MTV generation that he could indeed make a slick, satisfying rock record. It’s right there on the title cut, which features a unfurled carpet of syrupy hard rock guitar parts.
Reed acquiesced to slick, if admittedly innovative, music videos for the the sharp singles “No Money Down” and “The Original Wrapper” (the latter song featuring Reed taking his established deadpan singing style and applying to the the awkward delivery of a rap). It was a good theory — call it the Talking Heads model of generating commercial attention for challenging, reflexively risk-taking music — but there was only the narrowest possibility of entry for material this iconoclastic and prickly. Breaking through required playing nice in a way that wasn’t especially suited to Reed.
Because a perception took hold that Reed was trying to buff off his harder edges to maybe get a rock radio hit, Mistrial was dimly regarded in some quarters. It’s fair to say that it lacks the weighty ambition of his finest albums, but it’s enjoyable as a product of a cantankerous creator banging out whatever song idea that comes to him and having enough innate ability that even the castoffs are pretty good. The enjoyably dopey rock song “Spit It Out,” the rough and ready “Video Violence,” and the sludgy ballad “Don’t Hurt a Woman” all have their charms.
“Tell It to Your Heart” ends the album with with the sort of graffitied brick majesty that could only come from one of New York City’s great rock poets: “I was standing by the Hudson River’s edge at night/ Looking out across the Jersey shore/ At a neon light spelling out some cola’s name/ And I thought your name should be dancing/ Beamed from satellites/ Larger than any billboard in Times Square.” If the song doesn’t necessarily stand with the very greatest in Reed’s songbook, its urban romanticism makes for a fitting precursor for where Reed would soon go creatively. For his next studio album, he made his commitment to writing about New York overtly clear, and it paid off in one of his very best outings.
141. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Crush (1985)
“We’ve changed our style so many times, just to keep ourselves interested basically, and we’ve been lucky enough that a lot of people have managed to stick with us and have accepted the fact that OMD’s gonna put out a different style record every year,” said Paul Humphreys, one half of the duo that led Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, not after the release of Crush, the band’s sixth studio album.
The band was officially up to six members when they settled in to Liverpool’s Amazon recording studio to work on the album, but it was clear still Humphreys and Andy McCluskey running the show. Bolstered by the success of their preceding LP, Junk Culture, the pair approached the creative process in a looser manner than before, trying to bring some spontaneity to the work and allow for more emotional acuity drawn where they were at in the lives. The result is a batch of songs that are vibrant and immediate, though Humphreys and McCluskey didn’t always see it that way. They were reportedly unhappy with recording processes that sometimes felt rushed and were concerned that the label-suggested producer, Stephen Hague, was making everything too slick. What’s on the album, though, is pure pop music.
The mild disgruntlement over how they found their style bending this time almost led Humphreys and McCluskey to discard the song that proved to be their first hit in the U.S. “So in Love,” a swooping, scathing elegy for a broken relationship (“Heaven is cold/ Without any soul/ It’s hard to believe/ I was so in love with you”), is absolutely exquisite. It was also struck from the expected track list until keyboardist Martin Cooper stumped for it. Released as the album’s first single, it landed Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in the Billboard Top 40 for the first time.
The rest of Crush is equally worthy, whether the gentle “Secret,” the thrillingly precise “La Femme Accident,” or the arty, sly title cut. There’s an almost devilish delight to be had in hearing the group buck against the constraints of the elegant British pop they mastered, as with “The Lights Are Going Out,” a swingy dirge, or “88 Seconds in Greensboro,” which gets to Love and Rockets’ candy-coated industrial mode four years before they did. “Bloc Bloc Bloc” sounds like the result of Squeeze going hard into dance music, complete with the appealing tang to the lyrics (“I want to go down to Memphis/ I want to talk to the King/ I want to tell him we’re sorry/ And it won’t happen again”).
Crush was Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s most successful album to that point in the U.S. by a sizable margin. It also attracted the notice of filmmaker John Hughes and his collaborators. They were at work on a new teen romance when the album was making noise on the charts, and they thought the group was perfectly suited to provide a song that accompany the movie’s emotional climax. Although it was a unexpectedly challenging process to get a song that suited the film’s final narrative, the soundtrack contribution worked out well for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.
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.