College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #107 to #105

107. Big Audio Dynamite, Tighten Up Vol. 88 (1988)

Mick Jones believed Tighten Up Vol. 88 was an album made to vault Big Audio Dynamite to next level of commercial popularity. The band’s first two albums, This Is Big Audio Dynamite and No. 10, Upping St., received mixed critical reactions but also clearly developed a solid base of fans for the melange of sounds and influences created by Jones and his cohorts. Thanks in part to MTV’s then insatiable appetite for new and distinctly different music, acts that were previously relegated to obscurity on college radio were getting a little more attention which in turn brought them appreciative ears. Producing the album himself, Jones brought a showman’s panache to Tighten Up Vol. 88 (its title nicked from the revered Trojan Records comps that started in the late nineteen-sixties). The album begins with a sampled sound clip of an announcer saying, “And now our feature presentation” before bounding into the easygoing romp “Rock Non Stop (All Night Long).” Big Audio Dynamite was throwing a party, anyone who dropped the needle into the album’s groove was invited.

Maybe the clearest indication that Big Audio Dynamite was looking to broaden their audience is that Tighten Up Vol. 88 demonstrates less sonic wanderlust that its predecessors. Sure, the energetic“Esquirita” laces in all sort of weird little whistles and other restless studio tinkering to provide a sense that anything goes when the group is assembling their sound montages. That’s more an exception than a rule on the record. More often, Big Audio Dynamite simply deliver bouncy, infectious pop songs, such as “Other 99” and the larkish celebration “Champagne” (“She won’t touch one drop of Scotch/ She loves champagne/ Brandy, wine, lager and lime/ Nope, it’s champagne”). Even when the lyrics are topical, the prevailing sense is that the beat is more important than the commentary. “2000 Shoes” takes direct aim at the grotesque abuses of power to build a lavish lifestyle undertaken by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos while they ran the Philippines (“Never had a conscience or any moral views/ Even any kind of taste, just 2000 shoes”), but that’s relatively easy to overlook in the thrall of the dancehall spirit.

There are a few instances of Jones invoking his own storied past on the album. The smooth, shrewd “The Battle of All Saints Road” carries some of the freewheeling creativity of Sandinista!-era the Clash, borrowing tunes from “Battle of New Orleans” and “Dueling Banjos” in telling a politically engaged story of musical camaraderie (“Now they had the grass he had the song/ The Rocker and the Ras began to get along”). Really, though, the driving thesis of Big Audio Dynamite arrives on the closing track, the loping “Just Play Music!”: “Just play that music/ I don’t care what key it’s in/ Where it’s come from/ Where it’s been.” The group alit on a sentiment that was widely shared. Released as the lead single from the album, the cut became the second song to top the new Billboard chart devoted to modern rock radio.

The band chart success, even in more of a niche realm, indicated that Tighten Up Vol. 88 just might have been tool to chisel into the mainstream that Jones believed it to be. Giving that theory a full and proper test was thwarted by an unfortunate turn of events. As Big Audio Dynamite prepared to tour in support of the album, decidedly a necessary step for a band of that stature looking to keep their profile high during the life cycle of the release, Jones caught chicken pox from his toddler daughter. Planned concert dates were canceled, and any hopes of rescheduling them fell apart when Jone’s case worsened into pneumonia that left him hospitalized for several months. By the time he was ready to work again, his inclination was for reinvention.

106. Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984)

“What we play is American music,” drummer Louie Pérez explained of Los Lobos upon the release of the Los Angeles band’s major label debut album, How Will the Wolf Survive? “We’re Mexican-American by descent, but we play a mixture of musics.”

Evident as the dazzling musicianship and versatility of the band was to anyone who really listened, Los Lobos had their record company worried. When Los Lobos was signed by Slash Records, the core band had been playing together for about ten years, beginning with Pérez and guitarist David Hidalgo goofing around with instruments and reel-to-reel tape recorders before recruiting others, including bassist Conrad Lozano and guitarist Cesar Rosas. They even self-released a full-length album, Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, in 1978. The Slash execs were concerned that a Latino band was going to have difficulty cracking the marketplace, so they scaled back the band’s first release on the label to a strange length that sat somewhere between EP and LP. That effort, titled …And a Time to Dance, was a modest seller, but it got attention from all the right places. It was named best EP of the year in the highly influential critics’ poll conducted annually by the Village Voice, and its cut “Anselma” won the band a Grammy in a newly created category devoted to Mexican-American music.

Perhaps feeling a little bolder given the votes of confidence, returned to the studio with the producers of ...And a Time to Dance, T-Bone Burnett and Steve Berlin (the latter formally joined the band as a saxophonist and percussionist). To a degree, they knew it was time to make a statement. There were enough people highly attuned to the next phase of Los Lobos that there was a lot of opportunity to establish themselves as formidable creators. The album they made did exactly that.

How Will the Wolf Survive? is a tight, tuneful powerhouse. Pérez’s pronouncements that there’s a variety to Los Lobos’ sounds doesn’t mean the band shies away from their roots. Instead, they simply don’t see the carrying of their heritage as a limitation. The track“Corrido #1” inevitably calls to mind traditional Mexican music with its mariachi accordion, but that doesn’t mean the band can’t easily pivot to slick, sly rave-up “Don’t Worry Baby” or the racing “I Got to Let You Know.” If there’s a party element to much of the material, such as the roadhouse romp “I Got Loaded” (“Night before last I got loaded/ On a bottle of whiskey, on a bottle of whiskey/ But I feel alright, I feel alright/ I feel alright, I feel alright”) and the nifty shuffle “The Breakdown,” there’s also marked maturity and delicate care to be found on the record. “Lil’ King of Everything” is an intricate, lovely instrumental, and “Will the Wolf Survive?” effortlessly evokes yearning in both its music and lyrics (“Standing in the pouring rain/ All alone in a world that’s changed/ Running scared now forced to hide/ In a land where he once stood with pride/ But he’ll find his way by the morning light”).

For the assembling faithful, How Will the Wolf Survive? did not disappoint. It drew critical raves and sold respectably. Los Lobos might have been, by their own modest reckoning, just another band from East L.A., but the talent and skill they brought made it abundantly clear that they were also built to last. Comprised of the same quintet of musicians, Los Lobos won their fourth Grammy earlier this year, collecting it for the 2021 (mostly) covers album Native Sons.

105. Shriekback, Oil and Gold (1985)

Shriekback went into the album Oil and Gold with a goal of jarring themselves loose of their previous processes. Keyboardist Barry Andrews, an evacuee of XTC, and bassist Dave Allen, formerly of Gang of Four, felt that the album Jam Science was a little too regimented in trying to capture the sound they admired from various acts making waves on the New York City club scene. For the follow-up, they wanted to develop a more uninhibited creative environment. Oil and Gold was largely generated as a series of studio experiments. The band started with a rhythm tracks and gradually layered on other sounds, including lyrics, as inspiration struck.

“You don’t have that thing that you get when you write conventional songs of ‘Here’s a song. It goes like this. Now you guys play it,'” Andrews explained at the time. “The rhythm section, the pulse of the music, has to be bent to fit this idea one of the people had in their head of how the song should go.”

At its most effective, this particular Shriekback strategy produces “Nemesis,” a headlong blast of a track that locks itself into the brain with its propulsive hook. That cut is a standout but not an aberation. The jabbing “Malaria” and thrumming “Health and Knowledge and Wealth and Power” are similar lapel-grabbers, dance music that sounds like a manifestation of pure need. The band members’ lineage is post-punk comes through at times, notably on “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” which is like Depeche Mode if they ran on seething anger, and “The Big Hush,” which is the goth after-shadows that remain after the gloomy fog lifts. Overall, though, Oil and Gold is more deliberately forward thinking.

Interestingly, part of that future-casting involves an interesting path not taken. As the band worked on the album, they were recruited by director Michael Mann to contribute some music to his film Manhunter, an adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon that, among other things, introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter. “The Big Hush” is one of the songs that appears on both Oil and Gold and the movie’s soundtrack. The other is “Coelocanth,” a spectral instrumental that sounds like the background music in a particularly unsettling massage room. On point for the era of movie music, it suggests that Andrews and his collaborators in Shriekback just might have had a talent for film scores if given the chance to develop it. They didn’t get that chance, but one of the collaborators they brought in on the album, a keyboard player named Hans Zimmer, sure did.

In addition to the creative evolution, Oil and Gold brought about more change for Shriekback. Before the recording process was complete, lead vocalist and guitarist Carl Marsh unexpectedly quit the group. By that point, of course, Shriekback was pretty good at adapting on the fly. It was a good thing, too, because there were more changes to come in the years ahead.

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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