137. The Smiths, Louder Than Bombs (1987)
Because of the uncertain approach Sire Records took to releasing music from the Smiths in U.S., there was a lot of material that hadn’t been pressed on LP, Yanks’ preferred format for record store purchases. There were a string of singles that never saw proper release in the U.S., a situation compounded by Sire opting against bringing U.K. compilation Hatful of Hollow, released in 1984, to the other side of the Atlantic. Early 1987 brought another collection that was available in the U.K. but not the U.S., The World Won’t Listen. This time, though, Sire Records knew they were leaving tear-stained dollar bills in the collective pocket of the swelling Smiths fanbase in the States. The tracks from The World Won’t Listen were combined with a few others that hadn’t yet made it onto record in the U.S., giving the label enough for a double-album set. Dubbed Louder Than Bombs, it become the Smiths’ highest-charting album in the U.S. to that point.
With a mix of singles and B sides, some of the latter culled from live performances on John Peel’s legendary radio show, taken from a multi-year stretch that spanned the band’s career to that point, Louder Than Bombs could easily be clumsy hodgepodge. Instead, the compilation comes across as cohesive and well thought out, as fine of an introduction to the Smiths’ charms and flaws as any problem album. That’s more a testament to the band than the album’s curation, really. The Smiths’ 1983 debut single, band’s first single, “Hand in Glove,” is present, and it’s remarkable how firmly in the pocket they already are. The smooth, insistent rhythm of bassist Andy Rourke and drummer Mike Joyce, the sly, melodically satisfying guitar work of Johnny Marr, and Morrissey’s vocals that swerve and swoon as if imbued with real physicality are all vividly present. They are solidly accomplished from the jump with nary of hint of uncertain fumbling.
Louder Than Bombs makes the case for the Smiths as one of the acts best suited to U.S. college radio during the era when it was properly establishing its own uniqueness rather than simply radiating out as a slightly more daring version of what the album oriented rock stations were doing. It helps that there are occasional hints, surely inadvertent, of other left-of-the-dial heroes: the Public Image Ltd rhythm on “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” the R.E.M. twang to “Girl Afraid” R.E.M. twang. Surely there were precious few student broadcasters whose questionably accurate belief in their own boldness wasn’t stoked by playing “Panic,” with its repeated call to “hang the DJ.” Similarly and yet the converse, the call heard on “Rubber Ring” to “don’t forget the songs/ That made you cry/ And the songs that saved your life” had a real resonance to those seeking respite from their outsider status among the shelves of a well-stocked station music library.
Highlights about on Louder Than Bombs, including the fulsome “Sheila Take a Bow,” the flinty calliope instrumental “Oscillate Wildly,” and the ingratiating shuffle “Ask” (“Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you/ From doing all the things in life that you’d like to/ So if there’s something you’d like to try/ If there’s something you’d like to try/ Ask me, I won’t say no, how could I?”). The Peel session cuts, particularly “Is It Really So Strange?” and “Sweet and Tender Hooligan,” make a better case for the Smiths as a live act than does the lousy concert album Rank, released the following year. Things were clicking so well that even the castoffs worked. “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” was previously scrapped as a single, then reworked into a punchy and winning pop-rock number for the compilation.
Of course, another reason the Smiths spoke so effectively to college kids hovering around the age of twenty was the way Morrissey’s lyrics took the mundane misery of youth and made it grandly dramatic. The full wallow on “Unloveable” might be expressed in a way that understandably send older eyes rolling (“I wear black on the outside/ ‘Cause black is how I feel on the inside”), but it’s a genuine statement the dark-eyeliner set’s feelings that didn’t show up all that often in approachable pop songs. The anguish of suicide ideation on the spare piano ballad “Asleep” piano ballad is rendered effectively enough to make it a difficult listen: “Don’t feel bad for me/ I want you to know/ Deep in the cell of my heart/ I really want to go.” There are also the almost inevitable moments when the Smiths risk self parody, notably “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” and “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” (“Lord knows, it would be the first time”). Even that weirdly comes across as a strength, a marker of the clear definition of their collective creative persona.
The title Louder than Bombs is taken the 1945 prose poem By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which was a major influence on Morrissey. Written by Elizabeth Smart, a Canadian writer who died the year before Louder Than Bombs was released, the work include the following passage:
Everything flows like the Mississippi over a devastated earth, which drinks unsufeited, and augments the liquid with waterfalls of gratitude; which raises a sound of praise to deafen all doubters forever; to burst their shamed eardrums with the roar of proof, louder than bombs or screams or the inside ticking of remorse.
Louder Than Bombs might not be quite strong enough to deafen all doubters forever, but it should surely leave their ears ringing a bit.
136. Peter Gabriel, So (1986)
An argument can be made that the most consequential album of Peter Gabriel’s career, the one that soon led to a major commercial breakthrough, was the soundtrack he created for Alan Parker’s 1984 film, Birdy. Parker started cutting the film in time to tracks culled from Gabriel’s solo albums, so when it came to officially commission a score, he figured why not go straight to the man himself. The argument against it was provide by Gabriel’s label, Geffen Records. They warned he wasn’t a fast worker and probably couldn’t meet the timeline Parker set forth. The director reached out anyway, and Gabriel agreed after watching a rough cut. Gabriel was also aware of his limitations when it came to working expediently, so he retrieved a bunch of partially finished tracks from his previous albums. He tinkered with them, reworking, remixing, and generally bending them to suit what he saw on screen. Gabriel later explained that working on the fairly odd pieces for Birdy essentially got the desire to make more idiosyncratic material out of his system, so he leaned toward more conventional sounds — or at least his version of more conventional — when he turned his attention back to his next studio album. That’s one big reason Birdy was an important table-setter for Gabriel’s significant swerve towards more accessible material. The other is that the Birdy soundtrack brought Gabriel into professional contact with producer Daniel Lanois.
Lanois was just starting to make his name as a producer. That name got a whole lot more prominent in the industry when he shared producing credit with Brian Eno on U2’s 1984 hit album, The Unforgettable Fire. It was less what Lanois had done previously than the recommendation of David Rhodes, Gabriel’s regular guitarist at the time, that got the up-and-comer the gig. Gabriel enjoyed working with Lanois on Birdy, and asked the producer if he wanted to extend the working relationship. Lanois agreed and soon found himself in Gabriel’s home studio, jamming with him and Rhodes. Lanois was exactly who Gabriel needed: part cheerleader, part taskmaster, part foil, part simpatico iconoclast. Depending on what the moment called for, Lanois might offer encouragement that something Gabriel was ready to discard was actually worth saving, or he might lock Gabriel in the studio to thwart procrastination in the songwriting process. Further, Lanois brought a sleekness and bright clarity to Gabriel’s music that hadn’t really been there before.
It’s likely that Geffen execs discerned the different opportunity they had with this new album, which in turn would have rejuvenated their longstanding gripe that Gabriel didn’t help them enough when it came time to market his records. In particular, they were weary of his penchant for making every studio album a self-titled effort. He’d already partial lost a battle on that front with his fourth studio album, which was officially called Security for its North American release, and he decided to forestall any similar fussing for his fifth studio album. Still, he did things his way. Gabriel came up with a name that he referred to as an anti-title because of its non-descriptive, inconsequential nature. He titled the album So.
Before So, Gabriel had never sent an album higher than #22 on the Billboard chart and he’d placed only one single in the Top 40 (“Shock the Monkey” peaked at a lackluster #29). That changed significantly with the first single from So, the rocket-fueled “Sledgehammer.” Aided immeasurably by its vibrant, kinetic, dazzling music video, the song roared to the top of the chart and became a career-defining worldwide smash. The sonically similar “Big Time” also made the Top 10. After years as a cult hero, Gabriel was suddenly a pop star.
If So was clearly — and proven to be — more friendly to the average listener than Gabriel’s preceding solo outings, it was no less artistically satisfying. There’s an incredible power to the big ballad “Red Rain” and an enveloping unpredictability to “That Voice Again.” “Mercy Street” is the sort of refined, mildly orchestral pop song of weight and import that Sting though he was making as his solo career quickly skewed toward pretension. “Don’t Give Up,” a duet with Kate Bush, is more emotionally devastating than most film dramas (“No fight left or so it seems/ I am a man whose dreams have all deserted”), and “In Your Eyes” might have no real rivals among Gen Xers for the designation Greatest Love Song ever. Lloyd Dobbler gets the assist on that last point, it should be noted.
“We had mutually decided on a philosophy for the record — that we would incorporate a playfulness and a humanness,” Lanois told Rolling Stone a couple years later. “I thought it was important for Peter to be very clear with some of these songs. I wanted the listener to be able to touch the voice. I was definitely looking to bring Peter to the foreground.”
The record itself proves that Lanois’s philosophy was inspired. Start to finish, So is arresting and memorable.
135. The Velvet Underground, VU (1985)
The revelation came when Polygram A&R man Bill Levenson talked to Lou Reed about a planned best-of compilation for Reed’s former band the Velvet Underground. Reed mentioned that there were a bunch of tapes of Velvet Underground recordings that had been missing for years. They captured sessions that band did in 1968 and 1969, material that was reportedly considered for an album that might follow their self-titled third effort before they moved on to make Loaded instead. After some hunting, Levenson found the tapes in a New Jersey storage facility, but they were in miserable shape, so warped that they could only be played backwards. After painstaking transfers and remastering, Levenson determined they had enough previously unheard music to release a couple of new albums. For starters, he pulled together some of the strongest tracks for VU. It’s a mark of how tremendous the Velvet Underground were that the album more than a mere historical artifact. By any fair assessment, it’s a pretty great record.
A lot of the material was also somewhat recognizable, because Reed had repurposed many of the songs for his solo albums. The gentle beauty “Stephanie Says” became the dirge-like and devastating “Caroline Says II” on Reed’s 1973 masterwork, Berlin, for example. And the pointy, jazzy “Lisa Says” and the fuzzy downer “Ocean” help fill out the set list on the double live album 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. Familiarity doesn’t blunt the thrill of hearing this previously lost songs, though. If anything, the compare and contrast only reinforces the strange magic that the Velvet Underground could conjure in the studio. The VU versions immediately move to the front of the pack.
The album is flush with charm in the roadhouse groove of “I Can’t Stand It” and the gurgling force of “Temptation Inside My Heart.” Written about Valerie Solanas’s attempted assassination of Andy Warhol, “Andy’s Chest” has a jitterbug bounce that cuts against the grim subject matter in a fascinating way. Maureen Tucker’s lead vocals on the childlike “I’m Sticking with You” (“I’m sticking with you/ ‘Cause I’m made out of glue”) essentially predict the entire oeuvre of Kimya Dawson (there’s a reason the track fit so snugly on the Juno soundtrack). “One of These Days” is a countryfied rock song that is the spiritual cousin to the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers.”
Levenson and his colleagues at Polygram suspected the time was right for a Velvet Underground revival. College radio airwaves — and increasingly some commercial airwaves — were filled with acts who eagerly cited the Velvet Underground as a major influence, and there was reason to believe some of the cool kids snapping up the records of those newer performers would want to fortify their indie cred by dropped a few bucks to add the foundational works to their collection, too. VU was accompanied by reissues of the first three Velvet Underground albums (at the time, White Light/White Heart and The Velvet Underground had been out of print for more than a decade). Though hardly smashes, the Velvet Underground did move units like never before. Peaking at #85, VU still stands as the band’s only album to crack the Top 100 of the Billboard 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.