98. The J. Geils Band, Love Stinks (1980)
The career boost sought by the J. Geils Band had worked, more or less. After several years on Atlantic Records, they jumped to EMI based on the promise that they’d get more concerted promotion of their music. The first outing under the new contract, Sanctuary, was their most successful in years, nabbing them a gold record for the first time since their Top 10-charting 1973 album, Bloodshot. In addition to the new corporate commitment, the band also chalked up some of the marketplace growth to the addition of more keyboard parts on the album, which brought a touch more pop to their bar-band rock. For the next album, they doubled down, bringing in synthesizers, evidently at the urging of keyboard player Seth Justman.
“The truth is, we finally got the money to buy one,” lead singer Peter Wolf joked at the time. “Honest, we haven’t sold out or anything. Seth is just really into it these days, and he produced the album and used it a lot.”
The new toy decisively adds variety to the band’s sound. “Just Can’t Wait” plays around lightly with new wave, and “Come Back,” a Top 40 single, flashes their version of a disco-spangled breakdown at the end. It’s no wholesale reinvention, though. At the core, the J. Geils Band remains blues-beholden bashers. It’s telling that “Night Time,” a cover of a mid-sixties number originally recorded by garage rock band the Strangeloves, fits perfectly in the mix. “Tryin’ Not to Think About It” takes an amusingly overblown hard rock intro and merges straight into a bluesy shuffle, and the title cut brings a brutish comedy to a punchy rock song about the misery of romance (“You love her/ But she loves him/ And he loves somebody else/ You just can’t win”). That sense of humor also crops up on the album’s oddest cut, “No Anchovies, Please,” which swirls together weird beat poetry, a comedy sketch, and a warped radio play.
Love Stinks was the second straight gold record for the J. Geils Band, which they’d never achieved before. They’d found a sturdy, dependable level of success, or so it seemed. On their next album, the group founds themselves in. pop-chart stratosphere no one could have expected.
97. New Order, Brotherhood (1986)
Four studios into their discography, New Order was still trying to figure out who they were. With three-quarters of Joy Division on the band roster, there were multitudes of fans who pined for New Order to carry on with the jagged, fierce post-punk music of their former creative life. Much as New Order occasionally cleaved to those old habits, there was clearly an instinct to pursue new sonic avenues, mostly those paved with post-disco electronic dance-music tones. Drummer Stephen Morris later explained that Brotherhood was a deliberate attempt to present both halves of the band, roughly divided to the two different sides of a record.
If there was debate about which version of New Order was more primed for new greatness, it was definitively answered by the first song of the second side. “Bizarre Love Triangle” is a deliriously exciting swirl of blipping, bounding electronica, the plainspoken lyrics contributing to the sense of a soul set dizzy: “I feel fine and I feel good/ I’m feeling like I never should/ Whenever I get this way, I just don’t know what to say/ Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday?” The track beams and bursts in all the right ways, essentially a template New Order could and would follow for the near future.
Overall, Brotherhood is filled with songs that command attention, regardless of the instigating angle.“Weirdo” is lively and grandly catchy, forecasting the Britpop of acts such as James in the following decade, and “As It Is When It Was” builds into a fullness that’s like swimming through molasses, On the dance groove tip, “Angel Dust” plays like a very dapper take on disco, and “Every Little Counts” is a splendid, slinky goof-around that winks at early Lou Reed, the spurts of laughter Bernard Sumner lapses into while delivering the lyrics compounding the sense that it’s a loose lark. Closing the album, it’s tempting to hear “Every Little Counts” as a relieved acknowledgement of the band’s settled spirit. This is who we are, it seems to say, and we’re good with it.
“I think we’re definitely getting better,” bassist Peter Hook said at the time. “Brotherhood is our best-sounding album to date, and it show we’ve gotten comfortable with the production process. When you start to backpedal, that’s when you’ve got to worry.”
96. U2. October (1981)
Before U2 went into the studio to record their sophomore album, October, they felt there was a very real chance the band wouldn’t survive. Following the release of their debut album, Boy, earlier in 1981, the Irish quartet became more popular than they expected more quickly than they expected. Although far from the rock superstars they would become a few years later (Boy peaked at #63 on the U.S. charts and at #52 in the U.K.), there was a clear sense that they were ascendent and being positioned as the next big thing. With pressure mounting, frontman Bono, guitarist the Edge, and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. sought grounding in their Christian faith, specifically by participating in a commune-inclined prayer group called the Shalom Fellowship. Among the questions they wrestled with whether living their faith was compatible with a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Maybe keeping this rock band going would take them further and further away from godliness.
“But it got a little too intense, as it always does; it became a bit of a holy huddle,” Bono told Rolling Stone many years later. “And these people — who are full of inspirational teaching and great ideas — they pretended that our dress, the way we looked, didn’t bother them. But very soon it appeared that was not the case. They started asking questions about the music we were listening to. Why are you wearing earrings? Why do you have a mohawk?”
The Shalom Fellowship soon fell by the wayside, but the theological struggle remained. Eventually, Bono came to the conclusion — perhaps with the help of what he believed to be divine intervention — that the band was a worthy vessel for expressing the ethos that stemmed from his deeply held belief. After the lyrics he was working on for the went missing shortly before the recording process for October was to begin, Bono found himself in the studio largely improvising words to go along with the new music. With all that religious push and pull on his mind, Bono often defaulted to biblical imagery, sometimes giving the album the feel of a sermon with a backbeat. Occasionally, the pulpit-approved language is overt, as on the yearning “Tomorrow”: “Open up, open up, to the Lamb of God/ To the love of He/ Who made the blind to see/ He’s coming back/ He’s coming back/ Oh believe Him.” More often, the symbolism is embedded more subtly, leaving it disguised just enough to not chase away those instinctively repelled by Christian rock.
As they did with Boy, U2 put themselves in the hands of producer Steve Lillywhite. He brought a crispness to the material that accentuated the many strengths of a band still very much in a development phase but moving rapidly towards their own distinct. The headlong “Rejoice” is one of the few tracks with vestiges of the post-punk beginnings of the group, and “I Threw a Brick Through a Window” is sinewy in a way that would grow increasingly rare as they moved along. One of the clearest signs that the evolution was still occurring — and everyone involved was still figuring out who U2 would be —is that the “Fire” served as album’s first single. It now sounds entirely atypical of U2: lean and tangly instead of vast and imperious. It’s also a curious selection as a single because it’s one of the cuts where it’s most conspicuous that Bono is basically just making it up as he goes along: “There’s a fire inside/ When I’m falling over/ I feel the fire/ I’m going home.”
Rather than an album hobbled by indecisiveness, the questing nature of October makes it invigorating. It’s maybe the last time in their discography U2 doesn’t sound completely in control. They’re still a rock band rather than aspiring icons. “Stranger in a Strange Land” has an absolutely electric opening and then progresses to what feel like an escalating competition between Mullen and bassist Adam Clayton that’s almost jazz-like in its riveting unpredictability. U2 go icily spare on the piano ballad title cut and get downright reckless on the fantastically clattery “Is That All?” Album opener “Gloria,” all surging chords and emotive Bono bellows, is arguably the only track that sounds like the U2 that exploded into real fame not long after. On October, that’s still merely a piece of what they are and not a wholly shaped, identifiable brand.
October was seen as something of a setback for U2. Although it performed significantly better than Boy on the U.K. charts, it resulted in a commercial slip just about everywhere else. In the U.S., it couldn’t even crack the Top 100 of the Billboard album chart. The stumble was temporary, though. If U2 were still finding themselves on October, their very next album was an announcement that they’d decisively arrived.
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.