119. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!! (1980)
The back cover of Get Happy!!, the fourth studio album by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, features a fine-print note from producer Nick Lowe: “Hi! You’ll have noticed that there are ten(?) tracks on each side of this, Elvis’ new L.P. making it a real ‘long player’! Elvis and I talked long and hard about the wisdom of taking this unusual step and are proud that we can now reassure hi-fi enthusiasts and/or people who never bought a record before 1967 that with the inclusion of this extra music time they will find no loss of sound quality due to ‘groove cramming’ as the record nears the end of each face (i.e. the hole in the middle). Now get happy.”
Still in the earliest years of his fame, Costello already had a reputation as a prolific songwriter. Putting out an album with twenty new tunes, all but two originals, was still seen as quite the feat. Adding to the accomplishment, Costello didn’t merely rehash what had worked on previous albums, including immediate predecessor Armed Forces, which nabbed him a place in the Top 10 of the Billboard albums chart. Instead, Costello crafted a set of songs heavily indebted to the pop music of the nineteen-sixties, particular the string of gems on the Motown and Stax labels. In some quarters, it was seen as a tacit apology for a hotel bar spat with Bonnie Bramlett and members of Stephen Stills’s touring band during which Costello reportedly expressed a derisive opinion of famed black American musicians in a bigoted manner. The incident, which took place the preceding year, was notorious enough that Costello felt compelled to explains and apology for his actions at a press conference a few days later. Costello often downplayed Get Happy!! as a reaction to that situation, but surely that particular set of U.S. pop classics was on his mind for a reason.
Whatever the impetus, Get Happy!! is a triumphant album, the songs coming at a breathtaking pace (of the twenty track, only three go longer than three minutes) and all displaying Costello’s disarming command of the rock song form. “Love for Tender” is an organ-pumped romp, “Secondary Modern” is cool, classic soul, and “5ive Gears in Reverse” is lean, gnarly burner. As if inviting comparison to how well he does crafting new tunes that compare to the antecedents he references, Costello includes a couple covers, both robustly rendered: “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down,” originally recorded by Sam & Dave, and “I Stand Accused,” a more obscure number that is given an adrenaline shot of punk energy. Simultaneously, Costello positions himself as keenly aware of the new music bursting like popcorn kernel all around him. “Human Touch” tips an appreciative glance at the 2 Tone lads, and “King Horse” could almost come from a slightly more lo-fi version of Bruce Springsteen’s The River.
Costello was a strong enough songwriter than none of these allusions to other performers meant he was subsuming his own voice to suit whatever genre or subgenre he landed on. Get Happy!! abounds with his barbed, hyper-literate sensibility, whether the cunning “New Amsterdam” (“You’re sending me tulips mistaken for lilies/ You give me your lip after punching me silly/ You turned my head till it rolled down the brain drain/ If I had any sense now I wouldn’t want it back again”) or the sprightly, dramatic “High Fidelity” (“Lovers laughing in their amateur hour/ Holding hands in the corridors of power/ Even though I’m with somebody else right now”). The glum ballad “Motel Matches” is almost startling in the precision with which it depicted the heartbreak of accidentally discovered infidelity: “Falling for you without a second look/ Falling out of your open pocketbook/ Giving you away like motel matches.”
“We knocked off a few good grooves on that one, I suppose,” Costello humbly assessed of Get Happy!! to Rolling Stone a few years later. Whatever greater narratives might be attached to the record, that summary is as fine a representative of its charms as there is.
118. The Waitresses, Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? (1982)
Before the Waitresses were a band, there was the song “I Know What Boys Like.” Guitarist Chris Butler had been kicking around the Ohio music scene for several years, including stints in cult-hero bands the Numbers and Tin Huey, without really getting anywhere. He wrote a song with a teeter-totter melody and deadpan expressions of seduction and recorded it under the name the Waitresses in 1978, collaborating with a hastily assembled crew of pals, including vocalists Patty Donahue. Figuring opportunities were limited in the Buckeye State, Butler moved to New York City and started shopping the song around to record labels. Eventually, small-scale outfit Ze Records bit and gave the single another released in 1980, when it barely registered. Still, Butler had a foothold. Picked up by Polydor, he put together a proper band, with Donahue formally in the lineup. They recorded a full-length album and put a new take on “I Know What Boys Like” right in the middle of it. Released as a single one more time, this time it hit. Helped by this new cable network called MTV, the single cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and slowly, surely developed a cultural presence more significant that its chart peak of #62 suggests.
Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful?, the album that surrounds the hit, often operates with a rambunctiously divergent tone and tenor, which makes it a grand audio document of the abounding spirit of new wave music. Album opener “No Guilt” comes closest to adhering to the stylistics quirks of “I Know What Boys Like,” unfolding as flatly comic observation on the mundanities of modern living: “Needed new posters, so I bought ’em/ I know the cost of stamps now/ The thirty-first is when I pay the phone bill/ I told them I don’t even know anybody in Toronto.” The rest of the material is a joyride through pop invention.“Quit” is grinding and fulsome, “It’s My Car” is a blast of ska-like energy, and “Pussy Strut” pairs gooey, glammy guitar schoolbook lyrics delivered as arch abstractions (“Demonstrate how certain random movements/ Can be plotted on a straight line/ If you know an object’s special properties/ Well, that can be observed”) and then knocking it all further askew with a blandly raunchy chorus (“Look at the butt/ Pussy strut”). “Go On” has an intro that sounds like it’s made for a nineteen-eighties reboot of Mission: Impossible, and then it zings all over the place, a flurry of ideas packed into a single song.
Terrific as the album is, there’s definitely a sense that it’s an essentially unrepeatable trick. Admittedly. that perception is mightily informed by the inescapable novelty of the band’s one hit. Even without that context, though, Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful? is kind of a like a Tubes album without the self-perpetuating weirdness that promises life beyond its runout groove. The Waitresses’ sophomore album, Bruiseology, was a bomb upon its release the following year and the squabbling band broke up not long after.
117. The Primitives, Lovely (1988)
Few debut albums in the annals of college rock open with a burst of pure pop brilliance like the Primitives’ Lovely. “Crash,” which also served as the album’s lead single in the U.S., starts with an airy, tingly line for a few seconds before exploding liked a popped balloon to let a Ramone-like riff and the cooly seductive vocals of Tracy Tracy confetti outward. The lyrics are brash and defiant (“So shut, shut you mouth/ Cuz I’m not listening anyhow/ I had enough, enough of you/ Enough to last a lifetime through”), but delivered with an unruffled certainty and comfort that makes the sentiment all the stronger. Appropriately given its foundational metaphor, the song moves like a humming race car, and the whole thing wraps up in a tidy two and a half minutes. It’s perfect, absolutely perfect.
The splendor of Lovely is that so much of it approaches that delirious pinnacle. Boasting a set of songs largely written by guitarist Paul Court, the album is retro and modern at once, which is the right formula to wind up timeless. “Spacehead” is powerfully propulsive, “I’ll Stick with You” is exquisite pop that demonstrates that dreaminess can have some teeth to it, and “Shadow” swirls a finger in the quasi-mystical art pop of Siouxsie and the Banshees. As they came up in the middle of the nineteen-eighties, the Primitives shared a lot of bills with the likes of My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and there are imprints of that environment to be found on the album. “Stop Killing Me” squares its center of gravity in industrial buzz, for example. They show the tarnish even as they gleam.
What maybe sets the Primitives apart most on Lovely is the way they couple an offhand mastery of pop structures with a thrilling friction in contrasts. “Run Baby Run” pulls the Feelies stunt of merging an antic rhythm with a cool melody to create cheery discombobulation, and “Out of Reach” puts a summery sound with darkening-cloud lyrics (“Then I found a four leaf clover/ In a field where I lay/ Fear of dying passed right over/ Hope they get it right someday”). Much of the success of the band’s approach rests on the diminutive shoulders of Tracy, who’s wildly charismatic precisely because she’s distant, even a touch detached. Her withdrawal has a gravitational pull. Nothing demonstrates that more clearly that the pair of cuts where she cedes the center microphone to Court, “Carry Me Home” and “Buzz Buzz Buzz.” They’re perfectly fine, but they lack a magic present elsewhere on the album.
The Primitives released their equally tremendous sophomore album, Pure, just about a year later. When it underperformed commercially (especially in the U.K., where Lovely and “Crash” both made Top 10 showings on their respective charts), their record label, RCA, rapidly lost faith in the band. Their third album, Galore, didn’t even get a U.S. release when it came out in 1992. The band was a casualty of this corporate indifference. They split up not long after Galore was released. No matter how brief their initial run, Lovely still lives up to its name.
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.