College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #110 to #108

110. The Alarm, Declaration (1984)

“Everything has happened so quickly, and we have hardly had time to think about it,” said Eddie Macdonald, bassist and guitarist for the Alarm, a few weeks before the band’s debut full-length was released. “But it’s really exciting, and we all want to sustain the momentum.”

Boosted especially by a high-profile gig as the opening act to U2 on the Irish up-and-comers in their War tour, the Alarm moved a surprising number of copies of their self-titled debut EP, which only ignited their fervor for delivering a proper studio album. Their label, IRS Records, shared that drive, and they pressed for a quick recording process with producer Alan Shacklock, fresh off of helping JoBoxers to a slick and commercially promising debut. The Alarm carried over the chiming “Marching On” and “The Stand” from the earlier EP and added a robust batch of new originals, all resounding with acoustic, earthy thunder sent high into the stratosphere by the bellowing vocals of frontman Mike Peters. Declaration is profoundly, proudly of its era, the brief moment when deadly earnest rock ‘n’ roll looked like it had a real chance of ruling the pop chart roost.

Comparisons to sonically kindred acts were inescapable for the Alarm, and Declaration has plenty of instances where other products in the record store quickly come to mind. “Where Were You Hiding When the Storm Broke?” is like a more stripped-down and direct version of Big Country, and “Tell Me” is the U2 model made over to skirt power ballad excess. Just as often, though, the Alarm is simply locked in on the highly polished sound that was taking over AOR radio stations at the time: “Sixty Eight Guns” is slick rock, and“Blaze of Glory” is muscular in its anthemic drive. There are stray moments of mildly idiosyncratic invention, notably “Third Light,” which opens with a riff that anticipates Timbuk 3’s big hit, still a couple years away, before careening into punky brashness. Mostly, the Alarm spend the album absolutely locking into the musical shape that would carry them forward. “Howling Wind” even sounds like its main riff was recycled and sped up for the later alternative rock radio hit “Sold Me Down the River.” That’s how completely the material gels.

The momentum was indeed sustained. Declaration was a Top 10 album in the U.K. and slid, just barely, into the Top 50 in the U.S. With this album and the earlier EP, they had an extremely solid foundation to build on.

109. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Trust (1981)

Elvis Costello would later identify the time he was recording Trust, his fifth studio album, as a particular low point. His first marriage was in its long death spiral, he was abusing drugs and alcohol, and his relationship with backing band the Attractions was incredibly fraught. At the same time, Costello had soured on the the implicit requirement that he adhere to the caustic persona that the music press identified on his first couple albums. All this disenchantment made it difficult to get started, and the initial recording sessions were a bust. Costello, the band, and producer Nick Lowe relocated to London’s Eden Studios, where they’d recorded most of their material from sophomore album This Year’s Model on.

Feeling more comfortable in the familiar surroundings, Costello and crew moved forward precariously but sure enough. The rough goal was to bring together the melodic expansiveness of their 1979 album, Armed Forces, with the class R&B energy borrowed for its studio follow-up, Get Happy!! At times, they nail that self-given assignment. “Clubland” is elegant and boisterous at once, and “New Lace Sleeves” is a more artful and complex version of new wave music. “Lovers Walk” is lithely funky with a deft marimba rhythm as Costello tears open the wounds of his ailing marriage (“Lovers strut, lovers stroll, lovers leap/ Lovers late, lovers wait/ Making promises that they can’t keep”). He lets loose his inner balladeer with more mixed results, doing well with the somber “Shot with His own Gun” (“The little corporal got in the way/ And he got hit by an emotional ricochet/ It’s a bit more now than dressing up dolly/ Playing house seems so melancholy”) but also delivering the flat, tepid “Watch Your Step.” The restless variety is so pervasive that it’s a bit of a jolt when the anxious raver “Pretty Words” turns up, already coming across as a Costello throwback only a couple years into his recording career.

Costello strays even further from the expected with “Luxembourg,” a rockabilly-influence number played with verve; it might maybe the closest he ever came to aping his kingly namesake. “Little Finger” is a tentative tiptoe toward country, inadvertently forecasting his next album, a shocking stylistic hairpin turn that would arrive before the end of the year to a fair amount of baffled derision. Even more startling, one of the album’s highlights almost doesn’t feel like a Costello song at all. At around this time, he served as producer for Squeeze’s career-peak album, East Side Story, and that band’s Glenn Tilbrook shares lead vocals duties on “From a Whisper to a Scream” sharing vocals. For almost three minutes, Costello sounds like an eager pop player, the kind who could actually deliver hits.

Famously and infamously, hits were elusive for Costello, even as he was one of the more esteemed and famed figured in his immediate peer group. Trust continued that trend, and some of his supporters in rock critic circles clucked their uncertainty, too, mostly from the questionable stance that Costello’s erudite lyrics were becoming a hindrance. Not everyone was grousing; the influential music mag Trouser Press declared Trust to be the best album of the year.

108. Stevie Nicks, Bella Donna (1981)

While working with her band Fleetwood Mac on the wildly ambitious 1979 double album Tusk, Stevie Nicks started on a side hustle. Still in the long afterglow of the smash hit album Rumours, Nicks plotted to take advantage of her stature as arguably the most recognizable figure in Fleetwood Mac with her solo debut. (Note that the 1977 album Rumours sits at #32 on the Billboard album chart this week, so that afterglow has been very long indeed.) In addition to writing new songs and recording demos, Nicks teamed with Danny Goldberg and Paul Fishkin to start Modern Records, a vanity label with a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. A couple other artists would be looped into the label’s stable over the years, but its reason for being was clearly serving as a platform for Nicks’s own work.

When the tour in support of Tusk completed, the members of Fleetwood Mac scattered to solo endeavors, most of which generated just a smidgen of the interest of their prime gig. In terms of popular response, Nicks was the outlier. Her solo debut, Bella Donna, was a major hit, topping the Billboard album chart and sending four singles into the Top 40. Beyond the band-driven fame Nicks enjoyed, the success of Bella Donna feels like a triumph of pop meritocracy. The album comes remarkably close to competing with the best of Fleetwood Mac in sheer quality.

It probably helped that Nicks assembled some stellar collaborators. Jimmy Iovine and Tom Petty are co-credited as producers, and the studio musicians are an all-star team, including Petty’s Heartbreakers, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, E Street Band keyboardist Roy Bittan, and well-traveled drummer Russ Kunkel. She forefronts those partnerships on two tracks, duets with Don Henley on the delicate ballad “Leather and Lace” and Petty on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” a rock song that has the pleasing strength of a Damn the Torpedoes standout. Nicks does just fine without a rock star dude at the next microphone over, though. “Edge of Seventeen” is a propulsive dazzler, and the title cut is a rare example of compulsives studio layering enhancing the strength of a song. “After the Glitter Fades,” written by Nicks almost ten year earlier, has a country-ish tang. Taken with album closer “The Highwayman,” the album, probably without intention to do so, makes a sly argument that Nicks could have ruled country radio for decades if she brought just a little more twang to her luxuriant tartness.

Bella Donna was enough of a hit that Nicks probably could have gone her own way from that point forward. Instead, Nicks was back in the fold with Fleetwood Mac in time for the 1982 album Mirage. Still, Nicks was firmly established as a solo artist, too. There were many more albums to come under her own name, and Nicks assembled a strong enough personal discography that she later become the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as both a member of a band and as a solo artist.

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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