College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #104 to #102

104. Bangles, Different Light (1986)

There was no official lead singer in the Bangles. On Different Light, the band’s second full-length studio album, every last member of the quartet — guitarist Susanna Hoffs, drumer Debbi Peterson, guitarist Vicki Peterson, and bassist and guitarist Michael Steele — gets at least two turns at the main microphone. Three of the four of them take their own verse on the the album’s biggest hit, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a bubbly novelty once rejected by Toni Basil that became an offbeat chart-topper. Despite this, most music fans likely assumed that Hoffs held that role by the time Different Light became a smash hit that moved more than three million units. That was largely attributable to the fact that the album’s breakthrough single, the Prince-penned “Manic Monday,” was one of Hoffs’ three stints on lead vocals on the album. No matter how egalitarian the Bangles were in practice, the pop star machine demanded a prime protagonist, and Hoffs was tugged into that spotlight.

There’s little question the Bangles had given themselves over the clanking whims of that particular machine when they made the album. Veterans of the Los Angeles–based Paisley Underground scene, the group had watched many of their talented peers earn critical praise and small but cultishly devoted fan baes without ever earning the significant financial rewards that come from crossover pop success. For Different Light, the Bangles deliberately strove to make an album more likely to appeal to the masses, drawing on the work of outside songwriters and working with producer David Kahne to add more slickness to their recorded material.

“We were really looking for a punchier sound, a bigger drum sound,” Vicki Peterson explained at the time. “We were looking for a step up in production without sounding like a disco group.”

Even without the proof of Billboard single placement, the obvious conclusion is that the group accomplished their goal on Different Light. The album is a procession of slick, straightforward pop gems. In additional to the biggest hits, the Bangles saw respectable chart action with the plaintive Jules Shear ballad “If She Knew What She Wants” and the charmingly retro “Walking Down Your Street,” co-written by Hoffs. Going deeper into the track list brings more pleasures: the brisk, bubblegum pop of “In a Different Light” and the light Rickie Lee Jones tingle of “Return Post.” Much as it’s reductively sexist to view the Bangles as the Go-Go’s with their foundational references pitched more towards the psychedelic end of the nineteen-sixties than the efficient pop pellet beginning of that decade, that really is the best comparison for “Let It Go.” Steele is pleasingly in her own place with her two key contributions: a lovely cover of Big Star’s “September Gurls” and the stark acoustic ballad “Following.” In those cuts lies a version of the Bangles that never quite was, defined by the variety in the member’s taste rather than a coherence to marketplace expectations.

Blessed and cursed with a hit album and songs that hit or came close to the top of the charts, the Bangles needed to figure out how to move forward. For the next couple of years, they were all over the pop landscape, dominant on MTV and scoring another hit with a sharp, forceful cover of an old Simon and Garfunkel song. For a moment, anyway, they seemed like an act with the fortitude to last.

103. Eurythmics, Touch (1983)

“We started to write songs ridiculously quickly,” Dave Stewart said of the process of creating the Eurythmics album Touch. “Like, people would go and get a sandwich and come back and we’d written a song.”

It was good timing for a spurt in prolific songcraft. In September 1983, Stewart and his partner in esoteric pop, Annie Lennox, had reached the top position on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the title song from the their sophomore album. There were presumably more singles that could have been drawn from that album. Then again, three of its tracks had already served as singles in advance of the album’s release. Eurythmics decided to charge ahead instead. From start to finish, Touch took only three weeks to make. It hit record store racks less than a year after its breakthrough predecessor.

Touch doesn’t feel rushed in the slightest. The album opens with “Here Comes the Rain Again,” its edgy, plunky intro leading to a sweeping pop song steeled by Lennox’s pristine, emotionally vivid vocals (“Here comes the rain again/ Raining in my head like a tragedy/ Tearing me apart like a new emotion”). Crafty and classic at the same time, the cut exemplifies the offhand pop reinventions routinely offered by the duo and their rotating collaborators. There are examples on the album of global sounds being airlifted in — the Spanish glitter dashes on “Right By Your Side” or the Middle Eastern warping around the edges of “Aqua”— but mostly they lock into the tightly controlled electronic revelry that forcefully grabbed the attention of gobsmacked listeners in the first place. “Regrets” play like Prince Lite melded robotic pop, and “Paint a Rumour” is a mesmerizing, synthy epic. When in doubt, Eurythmics knew they could always downplay the studio tomfoolery just enough to make a cut a full-blown showcase for Lennox, which is the case on “No Fear, No Hate, No Pain (No Broken Hearts).”

The singles from Touch cemented Eurythmics as mainstays of the U.K. Top 10. The returns were slightly more modest in the U.S., where the singles reliably charted but mostly peaked in the twenties. The exception was fittingly one of the cuts where the different elements Stewart and Lennox brought to their collaborations gelled most effectively. Without sounding particularly radical, “Who’s That Girl?” is inventive even as it adheres to sturdy pop construction, giving the impression that radio hits always sound like this, at least until some bit — a melodic loop-de-loop or some casual vocal flourish — provides the jolting reminder of just how different this material is. On the U.S. chart, it peaked at #4, bested by only “Sweet Dreams” in the band’s career.

102. XTC, English Settlement (1982)

He hadn’t really told anyone yet, but Andy Partridge was done with touring. The frontman and prime creative force for XTC was ground down by life on the road, attributing some health issues to the pressure surrounding the band’s recent time as a support act for the Police. Knowing all too well that XTC’s label, Virgin Records, expected them to adhere to the common practice of setting a schedule of live concerts to promote each new album, Partridge landed on a potential solution that also served his growing ambition as a creator. He went into English Settlement, XTC’s fifth studio album, intent on recording songs that would be so difficult to reproduce on stage that the label bigwigs wouldn’t even bother trying to get a tour mounted. A Beatles devotee, Partridge wanted to bring his band into their Sgt. Pepper’s era.

As it played out, Partridge’s ambition extended beyond the complexity of the new songs to the sheer number of them. Working with Hugh Padgham, promoted to the producer role after engineering preceding albums Black Sea and Drums and Wires, XTC recorded a lot of new material. By one tally, the band finished with thirty cuts in contention for the new album, a figure that included several written by bassist Colin Moulding. Unable to winnow this surplus supply down to two vinyl sides, the band decided to make English Settlement a double album, itself a statement of artistic largesse. Everything about the album felt major.

Moulding, as always, was well represented. Every one of his songs stands out: the stalking, hypnotic “Runaways,” the sly “Getting Better” swipe “Ball and Chain,” the popping, sandpapery “Fly on the Wall,” and the chickety-churn of “English Roundabout.” That acknowledged, English Settlement is absolutely one of the XTC albums where Partridge is well ahead of his bandmates, implicitly challenging them to keep up. If “Senses Working Overtime” isn’t indisputably the best single song in the XTC repertoire, it at least makes a case for itself in that heated competition. He can carry a song to a big, vibrant place, as with “Snowman,” or descend to bruised-knuckle toughness, on the snarling “No Thugs in Our House,” and make every divergence still feel like the logical output of the same artist. It’s a grand pop sorcery.

When XTC gets a little more weird on English Settlement, they almost push into the territory staked out by some other contemporaries. With its flirtations with world music, “It’s Nearly Africa” has some Talking Heads spirit to it. The flintiness and arch experimentalism of “Melt the Guns” nearly positions Partridge as an across-the-pond Frank Zappa, customary British restraint largely eliminating the officious instrumental peacocking that makes a cut into a speaker-rattling slog. These are interesting digressions, but had he explored such pursuits more ardently, its easy to believe Partridge the consummate pop craftsman would have gotten lost.

Partridge’s scheme didn’t work. Virgin execs thought touring English Settlement was a perfectly fine idea, and a lengthy international swing was scheduled. After a few dates, though, Partridge exited the pitch on his own. He declared he was too exhausted to continue, and the remaining tour dates were scrapped. He forced his latter-day Beatles scenario. From then on, XTC was a studio-only band.

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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