College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #140 to #138

140. Nick Lowe, Nick the Knife (1982)

On the official ledger, Nick the Knife is Nick Lowe’s third solo album. Considered in a more nuanced way, it’s his first outing on his own. The album’s two predecessors on Lowe’s solo discography, Jesus of Cool (disappointingly retitled Pure Pop for Now People for its initial U.S. release) and Labour of Love, are sorted by some as Rockpile albums under a different name. Contractual tangles effectively prevented the group — also featuring guitarists Dave Edmunds and Billy Bremner and drummer Terry Williams — from releasing recordings under their own name. They still made records together, then put them out billed to either Lowe or Edmunds. When they finally maneuvered to lay down a properly attributed Rockpile album, the splendid Seconds of Pleasure, operating in a more egalitarian fashion after having de facto captains on previous outings proved to be a strain. The band formally broke up, though there’d still be plenty of interaction between individual members in the years ahead. For instance, both Bremner and Williams play on Nick the Knife.

“I don’t feel I’ve got anything to say, apart from encouraging people not to take themselves too seriously,” Lowe noted of his songwriting upon the release of Nick the Knife, even as he explained he was “deadly serious” about his craft.

In rock music, Lowe is a classicist. Song after song borrows uses the foundational structures of the form, enlivening them with grand panache. “Stick It Where the Sun Don’t Shine” has a rockabilly tang, and “Queen of Sheba” is a mid-tempo charmer that any number of acts might have lilted through at Sun Studios, though the lyrics have the more modern spirit of lark-like invention (“You ain’t no Mona Lisa/ And me no speak-o Italiano/ But you sure do look a picture/ With your head on my pillow”). Lowe delivers the thumping “Burning,” the acoustic jauntiness of “Let Me Kiss Ya,” and the cool shimmy of “One’s Too Many (And a Hundred Ain’t Enough)” with equal aplomb, the brightly realized songs seeming to spring from him like a chain of tied-together kerchiefs out of a magician’s sleeve.

Lowe is also a keen collaborator, writing a couple songs with Carlene Carter, his wife at the time. The best of these is “My Heart Hurts” co-written with Carlene Carter, a practically perfect pop-rock number about enduring a withering relationship: “I wear a little smile/ While swallowing the dirt/ But underneath my shirt/ My heart hurts.” It’s so good that it’s easy to imagine dozens of singer-songwriters with similar creative sensibilities — such as Marshall Crenshaw and Tommy Keene — returning to this cut and the entirety of Nick the Knife as a touchstone reminder of how to ply their trade. That’s how good it is.

139. U2, Boy (1981)

Larry Mullen Jr. wasn’t supposed to be a student at Mount Temple Comprehensive School, the relatively new secondary school in Dublin. He flunked the entrance exams to more prestigious schools, and Mount Temple was the backup. It was there that he posted a notice on a bulletin board: “Drummer Seeks Musicians to Form Band.” The fourteen-year-old Mullen soon welcomed into his household practice space a small cadre of musically inclined classmates, singer Paul Hewson, guitarist Dave Evans, and bassist Adam Clayton among them. Others eventually fell away leaving a foursome. By their own account, the wasn’t especially good in the early going. Like the Ramones, they started writing their own songs because they struggled when playing cover songs. Three years later, equipped with a decent batch of originals, the band make their recording debut with an EP titled Three. The year after that, in the fall of 1980, the group put out their first full-length album in the U.K., earning critical praise and reasonable commercial success. Around five months later, that album, Boy, was given a different album cover and was released in the U.S., introducing U2 to record buyers on the other side of the Atlantic.

Boy is a tremendous record, dynamic and confident and electrifying alive. It’s also, with the benefit of decades of accumulated additional knowledge about the U2, a fascinating starting point. The band is clearly still figuring out who they are creatively. That’s hardly a surprise for a debut album, but it also stands in contradiction to U2’s own myth-making, the band’s most formidable talent from day one.

It’s not that U2 is unrecognizable. There’s a reason album opener “I Will Follow” remains a defining standard in their songbook; the hacksaw guitar line, the thumping rhythm, the soaring lyrics, and even the especially clattery four count to start and the shouted announcement of the song’s title during the musical intro feeling very much the first forging of a dependable template. Across the album, that Hewson kid, who took the curious stage name Bono, is already a powerhouse singer: full, clear, and just a little overly emotive, delivering the sort of vocals that made people decide national anthems were a good idea in the first place. And then there’s the chugga-chugga guitar riffs of Evans, using the even more curious stage name the Edge, rippling across songs with an insistence that’s almost discombobulating. The band U2 would become and then forever be is there for the listening.

There are also signs that the band surveyed what their rough contemporaries were up to and tried to figure out what flavors of modern rock music they could borrow from.“Twilight” is a contained epic of the sort U2 would quickly master, but laced with post-punk elements. “A Day Without Me” is probably the most new wavy they ever sounded, and “Out of Control” is somewhat in the same vein with more of the rock punch that would define the first phase of their career. Sometimes the band’s exploratory instincts allow them to shrewdly break away from their own developing patterns. “The Electric Co.” employs a frenetic opening and anxious rhythm that’s suited to the song’s angry protest against the use of electroshock therapy, inspired by a friend who was deeply damaged by the treatment (“The toy could feel/ A hole in your head/ You go in shock/ You’re spoon-fed”). It’s bracing to hear U2 operate with this particular brand of intensity.

“I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but even at this stage, I do feel we are meant to be one of the great groups,” Bono told Rolling Stone as the group toured the U.S. in support of Boy. “There’s a certain spark, a certain chemistry, that was special about the Stones, the Who, and the Beatles, and I think it’s also special about U2.”

Bono does sound arrogant in that statement. The thing is, though, he also wasn’t wrong.

138. Hüsker Dü, Flip Your Wig (1985)

“What we’re trying to do now instead of screaming and ranting like we used to do four years ago is just look at our own personal reality, take a look at some of our friends’ realities, things we can honestly comment on, instead of trying to be politicians,” Bob Mould told the Vancouver Sun not long after the release of Flip Your Wig, the fourth studio album from his band Hüsker Dü.

Moving away from the screaming and ranting was a tricky proposition for any act that launched in the hardcore punk scene of the nineteen-eighties, as they guardians of credibility were always ready to declare the condemnation of those who strayed. For all the abrasion on their earliest recordings, though, Hüsker Dü drew from a deeper well. Zen Arcade, the band’s landmark 1984 double album, is a battering ram, but it also has moments of intricate, refined tunefulness. They were always more than their decibel peaks, and there’s still political fury to be found on Flip Your Wig, most notably in the fabulous “Divide and Conquer,” a Mould-penned track that rails against constructs meant to keep the populace at odds with one another instead of united against the predatory power brokers (“It’s all here before your eyes/ Safety is a big disguise/ That hides among the other lies/ They divide, conquer”). It is still probably accurate that Flip Your Wig flashes a new fullness of possibility for the band and a greater accessibility for the music fans most likely to plug their ears in a punk club.

Flip Your Wig is stacked with winners, the track list following the usual pattern of more or less alternating between compositions by Mould and those by drummer Grant Hart. Mould’s contributions include the bounding “Makes No Sense at All,” one of the clear peaks in the band’s oeuvre, and “Hate Paper Doll,” which roars along between choruses that jab like a schoolyard taunt. Hart is really all over the place, with the splendidly buzzy “Every Everything,” the surprisingly effective ballad “Green Eyes,” novelty throwaway “The Baby Song,” and the sludgy “Flexible Flyer.” The album ends with a couple of Mould-penned instrumentals: the churning, lurching, scrunching guitar barrage of “The Wit and the Wisdom” and the post-hardcore psychedelia of “Don’t Know Yet.”

A few weeks after Flip Your Wig hit record shops, Hüsker Dü made headline news (at least in the local Minneapolis Star and Tribune) by signing a major label deal with Warner Bros. Negotiations predated the announcement, of course, and the Warner Bros. bosses hoped to make Flip Your Wig the major label bow for the band. Instead, Hüsker Dü gave the album to SST Records, the independent label that put out their previous releases, as a sort of parting gift. That decision caused a touch of friction between the group and their new business partners, but it didn’t actually delay the first Hüsker Dü album with a WB over the spindle hole all that much. Mould, Hart, and drummer Greg Norton were working at breakneck pace. Flip Your Wig was the band’s second studio album released in 1985, following New Day Rising, and their next, Candy Apple Grey, arrived a mere six months later.

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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