131. Hüsker Dü, New Day Rising (1985)
Following their creative breakthrough with the double album Zen Arcade, Hüsker Dü felt they were ready to produce their next album entirely on their own, something they hadn’t done since Land Speed Record, the live release that served as their full-length debut. Instead of following the usual procedure for their studio albums to that point by trundling out to California’s Total Access Recordings, the home-base studio of their label SST Records, the band booked time at Nicollet Studios, in Minneapolis. They saw plenty of advantages of sticking close to their hometown to make the new album, but the label bosses were worried that the mounting ambition evident on Zen Arcade would swell to Sandinista! levels of excess if Hüsker Dü were left unsupervised some two thousand miles from the SST offices. The label ponied up the dough to fly their main producer, Spot, up to Minnesota to work on the record. Although Spot had collaborated successfully and largely harmoniously with Hüsker Dü on the band’s preceding three albums for SST, this time relations were poor from the jump. When Spot walked into the control room, he immediately declared the set up unworkable because the board was a positioned incorrectly and demanded the behemoth was moved three inches. Matters didn’t really improve from there.
The displeasure with their circumstances might have sunk other bands. Hell, it might have sunk Hüsker Dü at other times. When they made that third studio album, eventually dubbed New Day Rising, the trio — guitarist Bob Mould, drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton — were in a rapturous place of locked-in artistry. Zen Arcade really was a turning point, sending the band down an avenue of creativity where they maintained the power and authority of their early hardcore roaring but reshaped it with exemplary songcraft. There are still ample signs of musical fury on New Day Rising, such as the blistering title cut, the colossal sounding “Folk Lore,” and the buzzsaw that is “Plans I Make.” By definition, Hüsker Dü isn’t relentless in their punk power on the album, but there’s every indication that they could be if they wanted to. It’s simply that they were more than ready for other explorations.
Unlike some other releases that find authorship credits split more evenly, New Day Rising is mostly Mould’s show. He goes big and vibrant on “I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About,” which is almost anthemic in its heavy buzz. The more immediately commanding songs are those that also happen to forecast the hard rock improbably aligned with a perfect pop sensibility that would be dominant on forthcoming Hüsker Dü albums and across Mould’s solo career. The pogoing “I Apologize” is a scathing appraisal of a relationship in decline (“Is it something I said when I lost my mind?/ Temper too quick, makes me blind”), and “Celebrated Summer” is a triumph that Mould himself sees as his “first effective use of melancholy, a sentiment that was to become a core element of my future songwriting.”
If Hart’s handiwork is less present, it’s also arguably more impactful for straying further from the established sound of the band. There’s weight to “Terms of Psychic Warfare,” but it feels more like Slade than, say, Black Flag. And the magnificent “Books About UFOs” makes the noise sound almost incidental against the plunky piano and off-kilter cheeriness (“Sometimes I see her sitting on the rooftop/ Perched in a lawnchair and staring into the sky/ I know that somewhere in some faraway galaxy/ That some gray men with telescopes are gazing right into her eyes”). “How to Skin a Cat,” a spectacular noisy mess, is like a reassurance to potentially agitated faithful that Hüsker Dü hasn’t totally given up on unadulterated abrasiveness.
New Day Rising was released only six months after Zen Arcade, and the band’s next album, Flip Your Wig, hit record racks around nine months. Hüsker Dü was operating at a breakneck pace, practically sharing their evolution in real time. The abundance of material showed no evidence of reduced quality. Rarely has a band been so prolific and so damn good at the same time. New Day Rising is part of the supporting proof of that.
130. Pete Townshend, Empty Glass (1980)
Pete Townshend had already released album apart from his main band, the Who. By one accounting, the 1980 album was his third solo outing, following Who Came First, in 1972, and Rough Mix, in 1977. Both of those were more oddities than proper studio albums, though. Who Came First collected tracks from earlier compilations paying tribute to the Indian guru Meher Baba alongside some demos from the fabled abandoned project Lifehouse, and Rough Mix was a Townshend-produced Ronnie Lane album that instead morphed into a collaboration between the two. Empty Glass was the real flag in the soil declaring Townshend as someone creating music on his own, making his own statement that wasn’t beholden to anyone else.
And Empty Glass was a statement called out from depths of dismay. Townshend crossed a deep valley through the last couple years of the nineteen-seventies, with the overdose death of the Who drummer Keith Moon, in 1978, serving as the starting point to the bleak stretch. The following year, eleven concertgoers were killed in the rush to get into the band’s concert in Cincinnati. Townshend’s marriage was on the rocks, he was drinking prodigiously, and punk rock was making his previously dangerous band seem passé. Townshend himself was the empty glass.
“Spirituality to me is about the asking, not the answers,” Townshend explained to Trouser Press at the time. “I still find it a very romantic proposition, that you hold up an empty glass and say, ‘Right. If you’re there, fill it.’ The glass is empty because you have emptied it. You were in it originally. That’s why it’s only when you’re at your lowest ebb, when you believe yourself to be nothing, when you believe yourself to be worthless, when you’re in a state of futility, that you produce an empty glass. Normally, you occupy the glass. By emptying or vacating, you give God a chance to enter it. You get yourself out of the way. You ask for help.”
Although it felt appropriate to where Townshend sat at that moment, the song that gives the album its name is actually a holdover from Who Are You, then the most recent studio album put out by the band that was still his main gig. “Keep On Working,” which has a touch of Ray Davies’s rascally spirit to it, was similarly written for and cut from the earlier release. Another reclaimed discard is “And I Moved,” which had a lilting melody that almost feels like it could evolve into fusion. Townshend wrote it for Bette Midler, but she decided, probably correctly, that it didn’t suit her.
There’s still plenty on Empty Glass that has the fell of Townshend opening himself up in a way that he might not have had he been handing the lyrics to Roger Daltrey to sing. “Let My Love Open the Door” is widely heard as simple a sweet love song, but it’s about the spiritual settling that Townshend strived for, and the lightly proggy “A Little Is Enough” is essentially a pledge to work through the issues in his marriage (“Life would seem so easy on the other track/ But even a hurricane won’t turn me back”). The raw, fired-up rock of “Jools and Jim” is Townshend’s counterpunch against the music writers who tapped out unkind word’s after Moon’s passing: “But did you read the stuff that Julie said?/ Or little Jimmy with his hair died red?/ They don’t give a shit Keith Moon is dead/ Is that exactly what I thought I read?” The track that invited the most speculation is the blazing, sure-footed “Rough Boys,” widely interpreted as Townshend coming out of the closet as bisexual, at the very least: “I wanna see what I can find/ Tough boys running the streets/ Come a little closer/ Rough toys under the sheets/ Nobody knows her.” When asked about that reading of the song over the years, he’s sometimes denied it, sometimes been coy about it, and sometimes admitted it, albeit often in fairly wishy-washy fashion when it’s the latter.
Empty Glass was a commercial success for Townshend, performing about as well on the charts as recent albums by the Who. It did well enough that Townshend was increasingly interested in going his own way, and his bandmates, especially Daltrey, grew suspicious that he was holding back his best songs for his own albums. The glass might have filled a little bit, but there was some bitter liquid in there.
129. Eagles, The Long Run (1979)
The commercial achievement of Hotel California, the 1976 studio album from the Eagles, is staggering. The album was certified platinum almost immediately after its release and spent a total of eight weeks on top of the Billboard album chart. A year after its release, the album had sold six million copies in the U.S. alone. By now, Hotel California has sold so many more copies (more than thirty-one million at the most recent count), but the numbers were already daunting when the band gathered to record their next record. How in the world does an artist follow that? Turns out the Eagles didn’t really know either.
This was the general state of affairs as the Eagles started working on The Long Run: they had practically no new songs and not many more ideas, several individual band members despised one another, they were burned out from nearly a full year of touring, and cocaine was practically an official member of the group. No one really wanted to be there, and recording the album become a brutal grind that seemed like it would have no end. At one point, the band’s label, Asylum Records, offered a one million dollar bonus if the finished album was delivered in time for the 1978 Christmas season. The Eagles didn’t even come close to claiming that incentive. In the end, The Long Run took a year and half to record and sent the band through five different studios before it was released in the fall of 1979.
The album also isn’t very good. Tempting as it might be to attribute the quality to the arduous process of making it, The Long Run is lousy in the way familiar from a lot of Eagles output: lazy melodies, pedestrian lyrics, so slick that it makes it seem like rock music with an edge has been outlawed, and somehow weirdly smug about all these failings. The title cut is the equivalent of a shrug, and “I Can’t Tell You Why” is the sort of gross glop that adult contemporary radio was created for. Practically everything on the album feels half-hearted: the dulled-down glam of “In the City,” the wan pass at Alice Cooper showboating menace on “Teenage Jail,” the dopey throwaway “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks,” and the clumsy, officious “The Disco Strangler.” The only song that works at all is “Heartache Tonight,” and that mostly because its such a blatant Bob Seger swipe that they got the ramblin’, gamblin’ man himself on the phone to provide the chorus. “Heartache Tonight” was the Eagles’ fifth and final chart-topping single.
Band relations didn’t improve following The Long Run, and the building animosity reached its volcanic explosion in the summer of 1980 when a performance at a political benefit degraded into constant threats of physical violence between guitarists Glenn Frey and Don Felder. Frey officially quit the band and the remaining members soldiered on just long enough to complete work on a contractually obligated live album. Incredibly lucrative reunions would eventually come, but as the nineteen-eighties dawned, the Eagles were as defunct as a band could be.
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.