College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #89 to #87

89. The Police, Zenyatta Mondatta (1980)

On the strength of their sophomore album, Reggatta De Blanc, the Police were a major rock act. That was undeniable. Even so, the band’s label, A&M Records, wasn’t satisfied. Although the trio had already topped the chart with two different singles in the U.K. and lofted the album to same position on the country’s equivalent tally for full-length releases, the success hadn’t really carried over to the U.S. Label bosses insisted cracking that marketplace was a must, so the Police were urged to get back into the studio as quickly as possible to bang out a new release.

The challenge to get a new record out was compounded by the competing demand of a world tour that took them to truly far-flung places, some of the dates secured in part through diplomatic connections drummer Stewart Copeland and his manager brother, Miles, were able to tap due to their father’s employ in the U.S. federal government. During the tour, for example, the Police became the first Western rock act to play Bombay, India. Frontman Sting wrote new songs on the road, and the band grabbed a four-week window between tour legs to record, even breaking in the midst of that to play committed festival slots. They later felt like the resulting album, dubbed Zenyatta Mondatta, was noticeably rushed and therefore compromised, but its overtly stated goal was achieved. The Police broke big in the States. The album peaked in the Top 5 of the Billboard album chart on the way to a platinum sales certification within six months of its release.

The Police also enjoyed their first hit singles in the U.S,, both eking into the Top 10. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” builds from menacing tones in its intro to a tense, precisely imbalanced song about an inappropriate teacher-student relationship. (It’s also responsible for at least one whole generation of pop fans forever mispronouncing Vladimir Nabokov’s name.) The other track, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da,” is more conventionally approachable, at least on the surface, as it relies on and subtly satirizes the pop song convention of nonsense syllables to express emotion, though the lyrics “‘Cause when their eloquence escapes you/ Their logic ties you up and rapes you” hit a little rougher these days.

If the Police weren’t wholly pleased with the album, its more a measure of their exactly standards than anything else. They were in absolutely in a zone at this point, maintaining their early punk-influenced fervor and melding it with jazz and new wave influences in a satisfying fashion. The churning “Driven to Tears” and flinty, icy cool “Shadows in the Rain” demonstrate their building assurance as consummate craftsmen, and the sprightly, almost anxious “Canary in a Coalmine” offers the reminder that they started as an act that could rattle the walls of tight, sweaty clubs. Unlike later works, there’s practically no pretension to be found. Sting still had it in him to craft a pure lark and make it land, as heard on the loping litany of modern malaise “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” (“Turn on my V.C.R., same one I’ve had for years/ James Brown on the T. A. M. I. show, same tape I’ve had for years”).

After more broadly shared songwriting credits on Reggatta De Blanc, Sting reasserted him as the driving creative force in the Police. Copeland gets two of his songs on the record, including the XTC-like “Bombs Away,” and guitarist Andy Summer gets just one, the weirdo art rock instrumental “Behind My Camel,” which Sting hated so much he refused to play on it. The track wound up winning the band a Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, one of the two they nabbed that year.

“Well, obviously, I loved the irony,” Summers later said of the band winning a major award for a song Sting despised. “I’m sure there was some smug self-satisfaction. See? I fucking told you!”

88. Prince and the Revolution, Purple Rain (1984)

To follow up the hit album 1999, Prince wasn’t going to settle for just another record. He wanted to storm the big screen, and he told his management exactly that. According to Prince, renewing his management contract was contingent on them securing him a starring role in a feature film based on his life. When Robert Cavallo, Prince’s manager at the time, couldn’t find any takes among the various film studios and productions houses, he decided to self-produce it. Cavallo hired two-time Emmy winner William Blinn (for the TV movie Brian’s Song and an episode of Roots) to turn Prince’s plot notes into a script. Blinn delivered a screenplay that he titled Dreams. Prince immediately sought changes.

“He asked at one point for the word ‘purple’ in the title,” Blinn told a Minneapolis-based reporter when the film was still in production. “He just feels that purple is his color. He was talking about some kind of emotional contact with purple.”

Directed by Albert Magnoli, who also extensively rewrote Blinn’s script, and picked up for distribution by Warner Bros. Pictures, Purple Rain opened in July of 1984. It was a hit, topping the box office in its opening weekend (knocking Ghostbusters to second place after a seven-week run in the top spot). It would up as the twelfth highest grossing movies of the year in the U.S., right behind Splash and just ahead of Tightrope. Prince won an Academy Award for the film’s original song score, beating the Kris Kristofferson vehicle Songwriter and The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Purple Rain was added to the National Film Registry in 2019. All those accomplishments are meager compared to what the accompanying album did.

Credited to Prince and the Revolution, the album Purple Rain was released one month before the movie. A couple weeks after Purple Rain hit theaters, the album ascended to the top position on the Billboard chart. It stayed there for twenty-four weeks straight. By the time it ceded #1 (to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s Born in the U.S.A. the album it unseated in the first place), Purple Rain had already moved more than nine million units. By now, the album has passed the thirteen million mark, and it’s almost assuredly the Prince records that above all others will be considered essential for as long as pop music reigns.

Surely it goes without typing that the album wholly deserves every superlative assigned to it. Purple Rain showcases Prince’s genuine genius as its most vivid and undeniable. The blazing and bounding “Let’s Go Crazy” and layered, majestic, casually experimental “When Doves Cry” both topped the Billboard singles chart, and the astonishing, stately title cut just missed, because it couldn’t quite get past “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham! If those are the signature songs on the album, they’re more equals than standouts when compared to every other cut. Any new listen is simply an invitation to adore its details anew, whether the clattering heap of rhythm that opens the exuberant, yearning “Take Me with U,” the strange synth prowls of “The Beautiful Ones,” or the sweeping intensity of “I Would Die 4 U.”

The album holds another legacy that’s especially fitting for an artist for whom provocation came naturally, The slinky, scintillating “Darling Nikki” was the track Tipper Gore overhead emanating from her preteen daughter’s speakers and knocked her down into a fainting couch when Prince cooed the lyrics “I knew a girl named Nikki/ I guess you could say she was a sex friend/ I met her in a hotel lobby/ Masturbating with a magazine.” Emboldened by her senator husband, Gore launched a crusade against smutty lyrics on pop songs, soon resulting in a parental advisory sticker or stamp being slapped on any record with even a whisper of objectionable content. All that controversy likely helped Prince sell a few more records, too.

87. Hüsker Dü, Warehouse: Songs and Stories (1987)

Although nothing was made official until almost exactly one year after its release, there was every sign in the lead up to and making of the album Warehouse: Songs and Stories that it would be last studio outing for Hüsker Dü. The ongoing competition between the band’s two songwriters, Bob Mould and Grant Hart, had escalated into a war of shared animosity. While recording the album at the Minneapolis space Nicollet Studios, Mould and Hart were rarely in the space at the same time. When they were, their competing approaches — Hart wanted to noodle and experiment, Mould preferred efficiency and tight, furious playing — escalated the tension. Meanwhile, bassist Greg Norton seemingly didn’t want to be there at all, preferring to putter around the record store he’s opened in Red Wing, Minnesota, a hour away from the band’s home base. The need to record new versions of several of Norton’s indifferently played bass parts was one of the only issues where Mould and Hart were in agreement.

They definitely weren’t in agreement about which songs should go on the finished album. After several back-and-firth rounds trying to decided what to cull, the pair decided to to basically release everything they had, which amounted to a double album. Their label, Warner Bros., wasn’t thrilled with that strategy, but they also had few options. When Hüsker Dü signed, they insisted on complete creative control of their albums, a rarity for act of their commercial stature. After half-hearted attempts at persuading the group otherwise, label execs relented. Warehouse: Songs and Stories was four sides of powerhouse rock.

On previously albums, Mould and Hart were more or less even in the quality of their contributions. Warehouse: Songs and Stories is solid as steel from start to finish, but there are also indications that Mould is pulling ahead, an omen for the comparative prominence of their later solo careers. “These Important Years,”“Ice Cold Ice,” “Could You Be the One?” and “It’s Not Peculiar” all bear the DNA of Hüsker Dü’s hardcore roots while simultaneously — and improbably — hitting like perfectly executed pop songs, all hooks, singalong lyrics, and emotionally available and highly relatable sentiments. That’s Mould mode of operation across the album. He makes tuneful thunder, wrenching triumphant tracks out of dour appraisals of the world. “Standing in the Rain” sounds so celebratory in its music that the almost comical glumness of its words (“Looking outside my window/ All I see is gray/ I’m watching the clouds roll by every day”) goes down like candy-coated toxic medicine.

Hart’s songs are strong, too. For the energy he directed at studio explorations, he similarly delivers a string of songs grounded in the Hüsker Dü aesthetic. “Back from Somewhere” races like a train, and “She’s a Woman (And Now He Is a Man)” has a veneer of retro sixties pop to deepen its punk sounds. “Tell You Why Tomorrow” is like Big Black magically converted to an acid rock act. Hart and Mould alternate tracks across the album; there’s only instance on album side of one songwriter’s products appearing back to back, when Mould’s “Friend, You’ve Got to Fall” goes into the buzz-sawing “Visionary.” Regardless, Warehouse: Songs and Stories never feels anything less than completely unified. That Mould and Hart remained in such alignment while on the outs in practically every other respect is a testament to the shared clarity of vision for the band they build together.

In the end, the strength of that vision simply wasn’t enough. Mould and Hart continued to scrap, and Mould had real disdain for what he perceived to be Norton’s flagging work ethic. All that might have been enough, but the clear catalyst for the end of the band was Hart’s heavy-duty addiction issues. After a disastrous show in Columbia, Missouri, in December 1987, Hüsker Dü canceled the one remaining gig on that short tour. One month later, the trio gathered at Hart’s parents house and officially decided the band was over. Unlike many of their peers, Hüsker Dü were never coaxed back into the studio or onto a cash-in reunion tour. Mould and Hart again shared a stage only one time, at a 2004 benefit concert for Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller, who was dying of cancer. Hart himself later battled liver cancer, which was a contributing factor to his 2017 death, at the age of 56.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s