College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #125 to #123

125. Pretenders, Pretenders II (1981)

No one expected the Pretenders self-titled debut album to be a hit, or at least not a hit at the level it reached. The Pretenders only produced one Top 40 single in the U.S., the exquisite “Brass in Pocket,” but that combined with adoring airplay in the emerging radio genre of album-oriented rock to lift the record into the Top 40 on the Billboard chart. In the U.K., where the band was formed, the success was even more impressive: chart-topping peaks for both the single and album. With those mounting triumphs came demands. The Pretenders spent a lot of time touring to support the record, even as their label, Sire Records, grew more and more anxious for a follow-up. The band’s frontwoman, Chrissie Hynde, thought she might be able to write new material on the road, but that simply didn’t work out. Without enough material for a new full-length when Sire wanted, the band instead issued singles and a stopgap EP, given the very literal title Extended Play.

By the time the band’s sophomore album was released, again being very direct with a title of Pretenders II, some in the music press were clearly ready to pounce. What was deemed fresh just about two years later was now maligned as derivative. The Pretenders had made a carbon copy of their debut, it was claimed, as if sounding like themselves was some sort of cop-out. Freed from immediate and questionable demands for reinvention, the album is nearly as bright and inventive as its direct predecessor. There’s a real magic with this lineup of the band: Hynde, guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, bassist Peter Farndon, and drummer Martin Chambers. With an ease that makes the songs seem effortless, the quartet meld bristling and soothing elements, classic pop structures and forward-thinking style, sass and vulnerability.

The album is anchored by two Extended Play carryovers: a slightly shortened version of lithe wonder “Talk of the Town” and the meaty, splendid “Message of Love” (“When love walks in the room/ Everybody stand up/ Oh it’s good, good, good/ Like Brigitte Bardot”). There’s plenty of satisfaction in hearing the Pretenders tear into driving rockers, such as “Bad Boys Get Spanked” and “Pack It Up,” the latter especially raw and forceful. It’s more impressive when they get more intricate, exploring all the ways they can finesse their pop songs. “Day After Day” finds richness in the contrast between undulating guitar lines and especially mellifluous vocals by Hynde, and “I Go to Sleep,” a cover of a Ray Davies–penned song originally recorded by the Applejacks swirls up some spectacular drama.

Pretenders II was another commercial success for the band, but challenges were arising behind the scenes. The following summer, behind-the-scenes tumult and tragedy starting playing out, leading to real doubts about whether the Pretenders could and would continue.

124. The Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come (1987)

When the Smiths’ fourth studio album, Strangeways, Here We Come, hit record stores in September 1987, everyone already knew it was a finale. A few weeks earlier, Johnny Marr, the Smiths’ vitally important guitarist, announced he had quit. Amusingly enough, some of the initial press reports described the split as amicable, maybe the most inaccurate assertion made in newsprint since “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” There was animosity aplenty between Marr and the Smiths’ frontman, Morrissey, and it would linger for years and years.

Maybe one of the most impressive things about Strangeways, Here We Come, then, is the way it sounds like a band blissfully in sync. The Smiths were solidly established by this point with triumphs galore on the U.K. and college charts, and they’d developed a distinctive sound: luxuriant pop with the ballast of guitar strength and romantically forlorn lyrics sung with maximum drama. That’s present throughout the album with few variations. Sure, there are mild variations on tracks such as “Death at One’s Elbow,” which can be heard as the Smiths’ version of a hoedown murder ballad, or “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” which added an unsettling edginess by employing crowd noises captured during the U.K. miners’ strike of the mid–nineteen-eighties. As experiments go, these tracks aren’t startling in their departures from the established sound.

Mostly, the album takes what the Smiths did well previously and refine it just a bit more. “Girlfriend in a Coma” and “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” are built on deviously good hooks, and “Unhappy Birthday” deftly deploys their regular trick or putting jaunty music to embittered lyrics (“I’ve come to wish you an unhappy birthday/ ‘Cause you’re evil/ And you lie”). Album opener “A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours” appropriately has a front-of-the-parade strut to it, and “I Started Something I Can’t Finish” features especially grindy guitar work that enhances a churning melody. “Death of a Disco Dancer,” notable for Morrissey’s piano playing making it the only track in the Smiths’ catalog that includes him playing a instrument, is a forlorn ballad that uses the dance-floor denizen of the title as a metaphor for members of the gay community who faced constant persecution (“The death of a disco dancer/ Well, it happens a lot ’round here”).

Strangeways, Here We Come was a proper sendoff for the Smiths, far better than the contractually obligated live album that followed about a year later. For his part, Morrissey wasted no time moving on. His full-length solo debut was released six months after the final Smiths studio album.

123. The Nails, Mood Swing (1984)

Not long after the Nails changed their home base from Boulder, Colorado to New York City, the band connected with independent label Jimboco Records to record an EP. They emerged from a high-end studio session with a couple well-polished cuts and were debating how to fill out the track list. Frontman Marc Campbell advocated for an odd little song they’d recorded in the own studio space, using little more than the preprogrammed track on a Casio keyboard. After some contentious back and forth, the track in question, titled “88 Lines About 44 Women,” was included and closed the EP. Before long, the EP made its way to the studio of influential British broadcaster John Peel, and “88 Lines About 44 Women” became enough of a sensation to set the major labels scrambling. A showcase was set up for the band, and Campbell performed an epic act of self-sabotage.

“The Nails got on stage and I refused to do ’88 Lines,” Campbell recalled many years later. “I was drunk, I tore my clothes off and fell into the drum kit and blew it. The only ones that stuck around were RCA.”

The RCA executives went to the Nails’ next concert and came away suitably impressed. RCA Records signed the band, rereleased the EP, and gave them the resources to record their full-length debut album, Mood Swing. “88 Lines About 44 Women” got prime placement on the album, of course. It was filled out by a set of songs grounded in new wave styles and infused with a sense of stately theatricality. “Every Time I Touch You” is similar to what Wall of Voodoo was up to around the same time, and “Home of the Brave” carries an echo of Lloyd Cole’s suave swagger. Already leery of being pigeonholed by their attention-getting hit, the Nails are clearly deliberate about making a few pointed shifts: “Juanita Juanita” has a hint of eeriness to it, and “She Is Everything to Me” recalls Blondie. “Let It All Hang Out” is a cover of the 1967 single by the Hombres that is goofy enough to anticipate the likes of Southern Culture on the Skids.

Mood Swing did reasonably well, but it was more a case of piquing the interest of music fans than arriving at a true commercial breakthrough. The question as to whether the Nails could transcend cult hero status would need to be answered by their follow-up, the 1986 album Dangerous Dreams.

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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