College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #92 to #90

92. The Smithereens, Green Thoughts (1988)

“When people write about things for a living, you like to write about them in a way that people understand them,” Pat DiNizio, the frontman and principal songwriter of the Smithereens, noted shortly after the release of the band’s sophomore LP, Green Thoughts. “No, I’m not the loneliest guy in the world, but I do like to craft my songs around those themes.”

DiNizio was especially intent of getting that songcraft right on Green Thoughts. The Smithereens had years of club-tested tunes to use when they recorded their 1986 full-length debut, Especially for You. The cupboard wasn’t exactly bare, but it was close. As the band extensively toured in support of their debut, DiNizio toiled away on new material, leaning into the classic rock and pop stylings that had long been his guiding star. It’s telling he originally wanted to call the new album Four More Respected Gentlemen, a title borrowed from an unreleased nineteen-sixties album by the Kinks. That DiNizio was drawing any sort of parallel between himself and Kinks frontman Ray Davies, one of the most gifted rock songwriters in the history of the form, could seem like hubris if he didn’t earn the comparison with every last note.

The Smithereens simply made great rock records, and a strong case can be made that Green Thoughts is the New Jersey band at their absolute peak. From the crunching, crushing opening riff of lead track “Only a Memory” onward, the band delivers largely lovelorn laments hung on perfect hooks. DiNizio’s directness adds to the immediacy of the songs. The abandoned dwelling of “House We Used to Live In” is about as dense as any metaphor gets. The emotional potency of the songs is ever present.

And what a set of songs it is: the beautifully lush and forlorn ballad “Especially for You,” the sweeping “Drown in My Own Tears,” the burbling title cut. “Elaine,” a song DiNizio had in his back pocket for a while, sounds like early Marshall Crenshaw, and “Deep Black” is an artful, mid-tempo number that showcases the layered intricacy Dinizio and the band could deliver. Everything of the album sounds perfectly of the moment and yet completely timeless, so set in the foundational structures of rock music that they feel like instant standards. Green Thoughts is a classic, and it felt that way from the first time the needle hit the groove.

91. Suzanne Vega, Solitude Standing (1987)

Although the folk foundation to her personal musical style was difficult to deny in the early stages of her career, Suzanne Vega resisted any attempts to categorize her. Those labels weren’t useful, nor did the reflect her sense of self as an artist. No matter how much reductive writers and music fan wanted to understand her by named the subsection of the record shop where her wares might be found, Vega insisted her range was broader that that. However, there was one specific term I suspect she would have been content to have applied to her: storyteller. She acknowledged as much when discussed her sophomore album, Solitude Standing, at the time of its release.

“My first album was all about people in alienating situations,” Vega told the Miami Herald. “The new album is even more of a character album, characters who are all solitary, all in specific situations. I don’t write about myself — I write from the part of myself that’s the same in everyone. I don’t write about relationships; I try to define identities. I trie to give people’s feelings shape, color, and texture.”

That instinct for crafting characters and situations with novelistic detail resulted in one of the most unlikely pop hits of the decade. “Luka” relates the sad tale of a boy who resides on the second floor and is the victim of child abuse. Vega’s lyrics are direct enough to make the song’s message unmistakable (“They only hit until you cry/ And after that you don’t ask why/ You just don’t argue anymore”) and yet it doesn’t feel didactic or exploitative. The cut comes across as pure, tender, and heartbreaking. It implicitly argues that this sort of taboo subject matter and empathetic social commentary is simply something else that pop songs can do if an artist has the gumption to try it. Released as the second single from Solitude Standing, “Luka” became a dominant presence on radio and MTV, eventually climbing all the way to #3 on the Billboard chart.

The whole of Solitude Standing is as exemplary as its big hit. “In the Eye” plunks and pings along, and the title cut is downright ravishing in its gentle musical sweep and poetically evocative lyrics (“Solitude stands in the doorway/ And I’m struck once again by her black silhouette/ By her long cool stare and her silence/ I suddenly remember each time we’ve met”). There are certainly instances where the shorthand assessment of Vega as a spiffed-up folk singer again becomes tempting, such as the spare, spectral “Calypso” or the sweet, melancholy “Gypsy” (“You have hands of rain and water/ And that earring in your ear/ The wisdom on your face/ Denies the number of your years”). Mostly, though, the album effectively positions Vega in precisely the zone between genres that she maintained was her natural habitat.

None of the other singles from Solitude Standing made the chart impact that “Luka” did, but there was another unlikely hit nestled therein. On the album, “Tom’s Diner” is an endearing a capella number that features Vega recounting in a robotic lily a mundane scene in a humble eatery: “‘It is always nice to see you’/ Says the man behind the counter to the woman who was coming/ She is shaking her umbrella”). Two years later, the British electronica duo DNA remixed the song with a sedately insistent backing track. Released as a single, it took off to become a worldwide hit. The track topped the chart in at least three countries and made it into the Top 10 in several more, including the U.S., where it climbed all the way to #5.

90. fIREHOSE, If’n (1987)

If fIREHOSE’s debut album, Ragin’, Full On, needed to establish that bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley had it in them to keep making music after the tragic death of D. Boon, their beloved bandmate in the Minutemen, then the next album bore the burden of cementing the new group with an identity apparent from its heritage. In addition to Watt and Hurley handling familiar duties, there were other clear carryovers from Minutemen days, including producer Ethan James and a certain ramshackle tone that applied over the rule-shirking experimentation of punk on forms that were more clearly indebted to the traditions of folk and early rock ‘n’ roll. Even the relentlessly prolific nature of the fIREHOSE — the sophomore album arrived only a year or so after the debut — was reminiscent of the Minutemen’s throw-everything-at-the-tape-and-see-if-it’s-hummable approach.

If’n doesn’t make the Minutemen a memory, but it sure does sound like a band that’s enlivened by the possibilities or future rather than haunted by the pain of the past. With guitarist and vocalist Ed Crawford, Watt and Hurley bash out a set of songs that gallop from one idea to the next. They dabble in the the same freewheeling deconstruction that made the likes of Guided By Voices and Pavement into darlings of college radio the following decade, but fIREHOSE, unlike those other acts, are committed to making their larkish notions into real songs rather than shards of indie-cred indifference. “Sometimes” is nicely gnarly, and “Windmilling” is a lean, satisfying rock song. They can get delightfully goofy (“Me & You, Remembering”) or play gentle, sincere folk (“In Memory of Elizabeth Cotten”). Their craft is roughly hewn and yet strikingly sturdy. That winning contradiction might be best heard in “Honey, Please,” which sounds almost like a jalopy Rockpile.

With two-thirds of the Minutemen on board — and with Crawford an avowed fan of that band — there are inevitably going to be cuts, such as “From One Cums One,” that sound like they could have been plopped onto a pre-fIREHOSE release without disturbance. But that effortless evocation of a different act is hardly reserved for the one that shares a lot of DNA. “Thunder Child” sounds like Tom Waits fronting an acid rock outfit, and the revving-engine drive of “Anger” might call to mind any number of snarling punk acts. Then there’s the very deliberate aping of fellow left-of-the-dial heroes in “For the Singer of R.E.M.,” a loving spoof of the Athens, George band that is so expertly rendered that litigation charging intellectual property theft wouldn’t have been laughed out of court.

With If’n, fIREHOSE asserted themselves as more than a curiosity. They were a full-fledged band with their own outlook. And they were a band worth getting excited over.

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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