College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #101 to #99

101. Foreigner, 4 (1981)

For anyone who want to understand — really, really know — what album-rock radio sounded like in the nineteen-eighties, particularly the first half before hair metal came prancing in to knock the system askew, Foreigner’s 4 is the museum that preserves the entirety of it. Thundering opening track “Night Life” is merely a warmup compare to what follows, practically vamping while muttering “Check, check” into the microphone. The setting of the template properly begins with the second track, the ridiculously dramatic saga of rock stardom “Juke Box Hero” (“Just one guitar, slung way down low/ Was a one way ticket, only one way to go/ So he started rockin’, ain’t never gonna stop/ Gotta keep on rockin’, someday gonna make it to the top”). From there, it’s a procession of cuts that hits every target of the era: a deployment of scalding synths on “Break It Up,” a overblown keening ballad with “Waiting for a Girl Like You,” and even the quesily commonplace lusting after underage females on “Luanne” (“I wait around for you after school/ You slip away and I don’t see you/ Don’t know what I’m gonna do/ You can’t see how much I need you”). Flip the record over and there’s “Urgent,” which tempers the bombast with a little Cars-esque new wave around the fringes. It’s like a full shift’s programming on an AOL station in five tracks.

The emblematic nature of 4 wasn’t a matter of luck or happenstance; it was by design. Frontman Lou Gramm and guitarist Mick Jones felt Foreigner’s 1979 album, Head Games, wasn’t up to snuff. They approached the creative process for their next album with a problem-solving perspective. They concluded a change in personnel was needed.

“It became apparent to us that the honest input was not there from everyone in the group,” Gramm said not long after the release of 4. “At the start, Foreigner had the right chemistry, but things started changing. The material submitted by certain people in the group just wasn’t up to the best they could do. It wasn’t that they couldn’t — they wouldn’t.”

Keyboardist Al Greenwood and multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald exited Foreigner, their studio contributions replaced by those of session musicians as needed. Reduced to a quartet (bassist Rick Wills and drummer Dennis Elliot rounded out the lineup), the group emphasized slick, arena-friendly songs, an approach that played to the strengths the album’s co-producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange. (Jones shared production chores.) There’s just enough headlong confidence to the material to obscure for a whole that it’s not all that good, notably devoid of soul or smarts. As the album wears on, the flaws become more apparent: The deadeningly generic “I’m Gonna Win” (“I was not born, to be a fighter/ But now’s the time I have to learn/ To keep my head, above the water/ Gotta play with fire, but not get burned”) and the odd. slithery ballad “Girl on the Moon” are prime offenders.

4 was a huge hit for Foreigner. It topped the Billboard album chart for ten nonconsecutive weeks. It’s also arguably the band’s more enduring album. By now, it’s more than six million copies in the U.S. alone.

100. Hoodoo Gurus, Stoneage Romeos (1984)

After a false start in the late nineteen-seventies, the Australian band that took the unlikely but undeniably catchy name Hoodoo Gurus came together in Sydney when a trio of guitarists met up at a Sydney New Year’s Eve party to usher in 1981. They soon started playing gigs, albeit with an ironic french “Le” at the start of their soon to be familiar moniker, and went through a lot of churn in the next few years. Before long, the only one of those original three was Dave Faulkner, in part because he had so clearly taken charge of the songwriting and other creative decisions. The band gigged relentlessly across their homeland, building enough of a following that it was an easy choice for Australian label Big Time Records to sign them. Their debut album, Stoneage Romeos, arrived in the spring of 1984.

The cheeky wonders that characterized the best of the band’s output throughout their career are present from this first LP. Faulkner crafts songs with hooks so strong it’s a wonder they weren’t around from the very beginnings of rock ‘n’ roll, handed out with the microphones and guitar picks. “I Want You Back” soars and crashes, the guitars bursting forward like battering ram, and “My Girl” sound like a slicked up version of the great, gnarly garage rock dished out by countless bands a couple decades earlier. At a time when keeping up the latest cresting wave of pop music often meant channeling punk fury, shaping robotically satisfying synths parts, or deconstructing a song while playing it, Hoodoo Gurus were proudly a pure rock act in a way that invariably sounded a little retro even when it wasn’t particularly. Sure, the restless rhythm of “Leilani” cascades into a song that have tangs of bygone grooviness and classic rockabilly verve, but it mostly strikes the ear as its own blazing, fevered pop, distinctly modern without sounding beholden to everything else on the radio.

As if testifying to their appreciation of the junk culture, the album’s title is lifted from an old Three Stooges short. The willingness of the band to venture into odd territory in their songwriting is present, too. “Tojo” is a song in direct dialogue with the nineteen-seventies holiday-themed Australian charity single “Santa Never Made It to Darwin” (“I said, Tracy, won’t you listen, this is Christmas/ Don’t you go, don’t you go”), and “In the Echo Chamber” spins out a wild, sci fi–shaded tale of a man abducted to be the subject of experiments (“In the echo chamber I almost went insane/ Even my own heartbeat caused my eardrum pain/ It was like a Phil Spector nightmare: the echo machine ran wild/ It was louder, getting louder — I thought that I would die”). The bouncy, jangly “Arthur” woefully tells of a former Hoodoos Gurus bassist who perished in a car crash, a scenario that all evidence suggests is entirely fictional.

Stoneage Romeos made a decent sized splash in the Hoodoo Gurus’ home base of Australia, but it was a slightly different matter in the U.S., where A&M Records handled distribution of the record. The label bosses swapped out the album cover and generally found themselves perplexed with how to market the band. The album popped on college radio, but couldn’t make much headway anywhere else. That outcome would grow increasingly familiar for the band in the years that followed.

99. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Darklands (1987)

“We’ve always seen ourselves, most importantly, as songwriters, and we didn’t feel we were getting that kind of recognition,” Jim Reid said of of the motivation he hand his brother, William Reid. brought into the making of Darklands, their sophomore album as the Jesus and Mary Chain. “I’m not apologizing for any records we made, because I love Psychocandy. It’s just simply that we wanted to bring people’s attention more to the songwriting side of the group rather than the guitar side. We didn’t have any desire to be labeled ‘The Feedback Group.'”

To further emphasize their collaborative skills as songwriters, the Reid sibling shifted the band to more clearly be a pure representation of themselves. Drummer Bobby Gillespie was out, leaving him free to start Primal Scream, and bassist Douglas Hart stuck around for a few more years but wasn’t credited an official band member on the records. It was a brother act all the way, and they insisted on taking the time to do it right. The single “April Skies,” rich with sly pop sensibility, come out as a very-advance single several months before Psychocandy and a clear indication as to how the Jesus and Mary Chain were prepared to temper their abrasiveness with impeccable craft.

The whole of Darklands is in that marvelous mode: part brash, part elegant, and entirely luxuriant. The title cut is smooth and cool, and “Happy When It Rains” moves with glossy, grinding goodness. The Reids grab goth elements and dance deftly with them, whether on the gleaming gloom of “Down on Me” or wonderfully weighed-down “Nine Million Rainy Days.” The strategy to highlight their fundamental songwriting skills comes through most clearly on the track where they peel back the layers to go nearly acoustic, such as the drifting “On the Wall” and the spare, lovely “About You.” The Jesus and Mary Chain stick their core sound while demonstrating just how much range they can find within in. Like its predecessor, Darklands is rapturous from start to finish.

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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