116. The Replacements, Let It Be (1984)
The story of Let It Be, the third studio album from Minneapolis band the Replacements, really begins with a song off of its immediate predecessor, the 1983 effort Hootenanny. Although the Replacements largely trafficked in sloppy, raucous punk music, the band’s chief songwriter, Paul Westerberg, harbored hidden aspirations of gentler rock stylings grounded in a foundation of classic pop forms. When he alit upon the couplet “I can live without your touch/ If I can die within you reach,” he confided to the band’s manager and truest believer, Peter Jesperson, that he considered it the best lyric he’d written to that point. Jesperson convinced Westerberg to record the song in a solo session, and “Within Your Reach” became the centerpiece of a gloriously chaotic grab-bag of an album. Emboldened by the adoring response to the track, Westerberg allowed his songwriting process to evolve.
“I was writing a lot of the songs acoustic and taking them to the band and playing them electronically,” Westerberg later recalled. “In the back of my mind, for that album, I was thinking Beggars Banquet.“
Westerberg’s approach wasn’t uniformly well-received by his bandmates. Lead guitarist Bob Stinson often struggled to find a foothold in these new songs, which led to Westerberg claiming a few solos for himself. For loping, fiercely endearing “I Will Dare,” the Replacements even leaned on a prominent guest player, giving the guitar solo to R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, in their orbit partially because Jesperson had recently moonlighted as tour manager for the ascendant quartet from Athens, Georgia. As if announcing the artistic leap forward they took, the Replacements positioned “I Will Dare” as the lead track on Let It Be. It was followed by the raggedy clatter of “Favorite Thing,” which could be heard as a hey-not-so-fast-buddy counterargument to the notion that the Replacements were being tamed.
Arguably the most thrilling aspect of Let It Be is the way it captures the Replacements in practically every iteration they ever were and ever would be. That’s probably the main reason it’s the most revered entry in their catalog. Yes, Westerberg’s increasingly openness towards tuneful, smartly crafted music is present, but so is his enduring affection for riotous slop that other bands would consign to a B-side or hide from the ears of their fandom altogether: the mu d pie fight that is “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” ricocheting hard rock deflated by a raunchy joke in “Gary’s Got a Boner” (“Gary’s got a soft-on/ Enough for more, more, more, more”), and even the cover of Kiss’s “Black Diamond” that resides in some netherworld between earnest and ironic. The Replacements show they can swerve between the agitated, squalling “We’re Coming Out,” a sweetly melancholy ode to the stasis of youth in “Sixteen Blue,” the impressively sensitive piano ballad “Androgynous,” and note-perfect pop-rock in a swipe at MTV culture on “Seen Your Video,” all without leaving a skidmark.
There is a unifying bloodline to all this variety. The overwhelming sentiment of Westerberg’s lyrics is that of a romantic at war with himself, pining for a contentment he can’t quite identify or articulate. In its most basic and direct, it comes out as “Unsatisfied,” a wail of existential impotence looking for a companion in rankled misery: “Look me in the eye/ Then, tell me that I’m satisfied/ Hey, are you satisfied?” At its most potent, those same ruffled feelings come out as “Answering Machine,” the album closing blazer that directs the ire of isolation against a piece of technology that represents a withering reminder of the elusiveness of desired companions. Westerberg delivers all this with a brutish honesty and helpless self-involvement that surely found a lot of sympathizing souls in college radio booths from coast to coast.
In addition to managing the Replacements, Jesperson ran their label, Twin/Tone Records. He instinctively knew that the band had crafted their breakthrough. He was also looking for a new sales pacesetter for the label, because Twin/Tone’s previous top act, the Suburbs, had recently made the jump to the majors with the album Love Is the Law. Let It Be was ready in the spring of 1984, but Jesperson held it until the fall, figuring the back-to-school portion of the academic calendar was the best opportunity to command attention of the likeliest audience to appreciate what was found in those grooves. Jesperson was correct. Let It Be was a big hit on the left end of the dial and critics were nearly as enthusiastic. On The Village Voice‘s highly influential year-end music pool, Let It Be finished fourth, a mighty feat in a year that also include Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain. After some fits and starts — and plenty instances of self-sabotage — the Replacements had arrived.
115. The Alarm, The Alarm (1983)
The core of the Welsh band that would become the Alarm had been kicking around for several years under a variety of guises, including a stint as Quasimodo, which found them doing nothing more than recreating the Who’s Live at Leeds on stage. Not long after they solidified as the Alarm, the group released a single with an “electric side” and an “acoustic side,” both heavy with the anthemic earthiness that was already established as the province of U2. The comparison was clear enough that U2’s agent Ian Wilson sought out the band and signed them to a contract after seeing a couple live gigs. Not long after, the Alarm were signed by IRS Records, a label with a growing specialty in generating college radio airplay for the acts in their galaxy of stars. Ahead of the Alarm’s first North America tour, and before they had a full-length release ready to go, a few cuts that already been recorded were pulled together into a self-titled EP.
The Alarm begins with “The Stand,” which had already been released as a single in the U.K. Drawing inspiration from Stephen King’s engine block–sized novel of the same name (“Oh I have been out searching with the black book in my hand/ And I’ve looked between the lines that lie on the pages that I tread/ I met the walking dude, religious, in his worn down cowboy boots/ He walked liked no man on Earth”), the track booms with chest-thumping confidence. “Across the Border” is tight, punchy rock song, and “Marching On,” which was previously used on their debut single’s flip before being rerecorded, is the Alarm’s version of jangle rock, glancingly evoking their new labelmates R.E.M. The live version of “For Freedom” that caps the EP really does sound like a less grandiose and ambitious U2.
Further cementing that pesky U2 comparison that would follow the Alarm forever, the North American swing that inspired the EP in the first place was an assignment as support act for the Irish act’s tour in support of War. The Alarm did well for themselves in that spot, driving up enough interest in the group that the EP made a solid appearance on the Billboard album chart. With something to build on, the Alarm wrapped up the tour with U2 and went right into the studio, aiming to complete a debut album that would keep their new fans happy.
114. Joe Jackson, I’m the Man (1979)
Any performer with a debut album as strong as Look Sharp! would be forgiven for coasting for a bit. Instead, Joe Jackson delivered his sophomore effort with remarkable speed. I’m the Man landed in record shops only about nine months after its immediate predecessor. Quick turnarounds were more the norm in that era, but this was still notably prolific. More impressively, the quality wasn’t compromised one iota. There wasn’t necessarily all that much growth or change either, as might be expected. Jackson himself later acknowledged that I’m the Man sounded a little like Look Sharp! Part II, though he could also discern greater maturity. But then, starting that strong invites maintaining a level rather than striving for reinvention. Maybe the most accurate title the album could have carried was Ain’t Broke.
Jackson comes out swinging with the bristling “On Your Radio,” which snarls at everyone who previously tried to run him down or doubted his ability to achieve pop stardom: “Don’t you know you can’t get near me?/ You can only hope to hear me/ On your radio, on your radio, yeah.” That’s the default mode for Jackson, especially at this point in his career. The pop is elegant and precise without sacrificing intensity, and the lyrics drip with cynicism. “Kinda Kute” adopts a swinging groove to go with a battering appraisal of the futility of nightlife romantic pursuits (“You make a guy feel humble/ I make a fool of myself again/ You make me trip and stumble/ Just go dance by yourself again”), and the title cut romps in its sideways character study of a flimflam man. “It’s Different for Girls” is tender pop that inverts expectations about sexual dynamics between men and women. If any track forecasts the stylistic expansive that would increasingly define Jackson’s output as he moved through the nineteen-eighties, it’s “The Band Wore Blue Suits.” It opens with engaging jazzy fiddling and then follows a bass-heavy trudge and banging melody.
Commercially, I’m the Man performed about as well as Jackson’s debut. He and his label were probably looking for more, though. If he mostly maintained his recently established artistic persona on I’m the Man, Jackson was ready to try something new the next time out. For his third album, Jackson changed just about everything, including the act’s official name on the front cover.
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.