College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #83 to #81

83. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Armed Forces (1979)

On his first two studio albums, Elvis Costello wanted to keep everything lean and simple. Partially, he was adhering to the punk rock ethos that was prevalent among upstart music acts in the late nineteen-seventies. The main impetus, though, was that Costello felt his songwriting was the clear star of the record. He didn’t want too much studio polish to get in the way. When time came to record his third album — and second with backing band the Attractions — Costello had a change of heart. Staring down the prospect of a career in a stasis of critical acclaim with only the most modest commercial success, Costello decided it might be nice to train his true aim on the pop charts for a change. Luckily, Nick Lowe, who was Costello’s go-to producer at the time, was an especially artful crafter of slick pop-rock. Instead of the week or so spent on the first two albums, Costello’s third outing, Armed Forces, required six weeks of recording, refinement, and layering of the tracks.

Costello didn’t exactly become a darling of the pop radio programmers in U.S., but Armed Forces did become his first — and to date only — effort to crack the Top 10 of the Billboard album chart. The album is remarkable for the way it entirely maintains the integrity of Costello’s early voice while presenting a version of it that does indeed bring it as close to mass appeal as could be imagined. Lead track “Accidents Will Happen” is fervent yet elegant, and “Oliver’s Army” has a singalong certainty (albeit with one lyrics that wasn’t great to begin with an has aged quite poorly), “Moods for Moderns” feels mod all right, as if Costello is preemptively reclaiming the sound that Joe Jackson was on the verge of pilfering from him. Boosting the agreeability of the record for U.S. audiences, original pressings of Armed Forces on this side of the Atlantic include a forceful cover of Lowe’s song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” which might be the most satisfyingly straightforward rock cut Costello ever laid down.

Of course, Costello wasn’t wrong about his sterling songwriting serving as the cornerstone of any of his albums’ respective tower of merits. His sharp instinct for sly, jerky-tough melodies is wholly intact on Armed Forces, and he combines them with lyrics or erudite complexity. “Senior Service” digs at class conflicts with a jaunty sound that suits that wordplay in the lyrics (“Senior service/ Junior dissatisfaction/ It’s a breath you took too late/ It’s a death that’s worse than fate”). Costello’s sideways storytelling is prominent in “Green Shirt” (“‘Cause somewhere in the Quisling Clinic/ There’s a shorthand typist taking seconds over minutes/ She’s listening in to the Venus line/ She’s picking out names/ I hope none of them are mine”), and “Goon Squad” brings a loping intensity to a scathing indictment of systems that ensnare vulnerable people. Armed Forces as bridge from Costello’s early angry defiance to his more complex musical musings to come is maybe clearest in the prickly ballad “Chemistry Class” (“Sparks are flying from electrical pylons/ Snakes and ladders running up and down her nylons”), which is the seedling that eventually sprouts into the likes of King of America.

Successful as the album was, its momentum was blunted somewhat by vestiges of the snarling braggadocio that was a famed and infamous defining characteristic of Costello in the early years of his career. Just a couple months after the album’s release, in the midst of a U.S. tour, Costello made the wrong sort of headlines by getting into a barroom spat with Bonnie Bramlett and some other musicians. Because reporting on the incident directly quoted Costello hurling racial slurs, the uproar grew so loud that he had to address it in a press conference. Suddenly, the path to his next album was going to be a little rockier.

82. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

“That was a rock record,” Bruce Springsteen said of Born in the U.S.A. a few years after its release. “When I put it on, that’s kind of how it hits me: That’s a rock record. And the bookends sort of covered the thing and made it feel more thematic than probably it actually was, you know? But I never really felt like I quite got it.”

Springsteen felt that just-out-of-reach uncertainty through the whole extended process that culminated in his seventh studio. Following his 1980 chart-topping double album, The River, Springsteen went through an especially prolific streak of songwriting. If he was energized by the new peaks of success he hit with the 1980 album, he was also knotted up by it. Already famously meticulous about how he recorded and presented his music, Springsteen couldn’t quite figure out what to do with this new material. Using a four-track cassette recorder, Springsteen laid down demo versions of several of them, accompanied by nothing more than an acoustic guitar. He then took the songs to studio recording sessions with the E Street Band, trying to muscle them into shape for a proper rock record. Largely dissatisfied with the results, Springsteen returned to the stark demos, releasing them kore or less untouched as the album Nebraska. A grim masterpiece, the album was about as drastic of a departure as could be imagined for the follow-up to its grand, exuberant predecessor, which in turn left Springsteen more perplexed than before about where to go next. He reportedly toyed with and abandoned several different ideas for his next album before Jon Landau, his manager and longtime confidante, and producer Chuck Plotkin convinced him that the previously recorded tracks provided a core he could build around. Although Springsteen penned additional songs to add to the track list and the two albums are sonically different in almost every way, Born in the U.S.A. is most accurately heard as a companion piece to Nebraska.

Sometimes the through line between the two albums is a little clearer. It’s easy to imagine slicked-up lament “Downbound Train” and romping story song “Darlington County” stripped down to spare, haunting versions that could have coexisted with the miscreants and wounded hustlers that populate Nebraska. In contrast, the wide gap Springsteen traversed to get to Born in the U.S.A. is charted by the title cut. As opposed to the raw, agitated folk heard on the demo version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” what it progressed to is as big and imposing as the massive football stadiums Springsteen would soon fill. It opens the album with a pile-driver drumbeat and howled lyrics of seething anger: “Born down in a dead man’s town/ And the first kick I took was when I hit the ground/ You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much/ ‘Til you spend half your life just to cover up.” That’s one of the bookends Springsteen referenced; the pother is album closer “My Hometown,” a pained ballad about working-class communities left to die like formerly verdant grass under a pile of corroding scrap metal. Taken together, they compelling illustrate the flagrant broken promise of the American Dream. As Springsteen belts elsewhere on the album, “Glory days, well they’ll pass you by/ Glory days, in the wink of a young girl’s eye.” To a notable degree, Born in the U.S.A. is an affecting survey of life on the other side of that rueful realization.

At the same time, the album is indeed the grab bag that Springsteen heard. It has the vibrant come on “Cover Me,” the lusty, soulful “I’m On Fire,” and the reworked rockabilly number “I’m Goin’ Down.” The second side opens with a double dose of nostalgia: “No Surrender,” which cops from nineteen-sixties pop (and basically acknowledges it directly with the opening lyrics “Well, we busted out of class/ Had to get away from those fools/ We learned more from a three-minute record, baby/ Than we ever learned in school”) and “Bobby Jean,” a clear farewell to E Street Band guitarists Steven Van Zandt, who planned to leave the group after the recording of the album was complete. Then there’s the very last song written for the album, based on Landau’s insistence that they still needed a cut that could serve as the lead single. After initially balking at the suggestion, Springsteen acquiesced and created one more tune. And he followed the brief perfectly. “Dancing in the Dark” sound like exactly what it is, the natural outcome of Springsteen putting his shoulder into making a hit song. Released as planned as the album’s first single, it took Springsteen to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100, the one popularity yardstick where he had previously been a perennial underachiever. The single spent four weeks in the runner-up position on the chart, boxed out of the top spot first by Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” and then Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”

“Dancing in the Dark” was only the beginning. Over the course of a year and a half, Columbia Records put out seven singles from Born in the U.S.A. and every last one of them climbed all the way to the Top 10. Springsteen had hit albums before; from Born to Run on, every last one of his LP releases peaked in the Top 5 of the Billboard album chart. Born in the U.S.A. was different. It was a blockbuster. The album spent a total of seven weeks on top of the chart and surely would have registered several more if not for the inconvenient fact that it was released exactly three week’s before Purple Rain, the similarly enormous album from Prince that spent twenty-four consecutive weeks at #1. The two stays atop the chart for Born in the U.S.A. immediately preceded and followed that six-month stretch of supremacy enjoyed by Purple Rain.

81. Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms (1985)

Love Over Gold, the 1982 studio album by Dire Straits, helped jump start the compact disc format that was introduced the same year. Presumably because the album’s lush, precise music and production benefited from being heard on the cleaner, digitally driven new product, the fourth studio album by Dire Straits was declared to the be the biggest-selling CD on the planet a couple years later. Continuing the trend, the band’s next studio album, Brothers in Arms, was widely considered the release that represented the clear turning point to CDs becoming the dominant format for the years ahead. Released with a heavy promotional push to experience the new music on CD (all the better to drive consumers to the then-pricer options), Brothers in Arms became the first album to move one million units in the CD format. CD copies outsold LP copies, another first.

Music fans felt compelled to switch from needles to lasers in part because the album was touted as one of the first to be recorded digitally. Mark Knopfler, the band’s frontman, was constantly striving to improve the sound quality of his recordings. That determination led him to invest in a Sony 3324 digital recorder, a four hundred and fifty-pound behemoth that needed to be lugged out to Montserrat’s AIR Studios for the album’s sessions. The new technology was a boon for the band, but it also came with a slew of problems not uncommon to the adoption of modern tools.

“The Sony is an amazing machine, and it sounds great, but like all digital machines, when it messes up, it really messes up,” reported producer Neil Dorfsman at the time. “We were about to mix a track when the saxophone we recorded earlier in the week just disappeared. Eventually, we got it back by fussing with the knobs for an entire day.”

The daylong pause probably suited Knopfler just fine. Meticulous to his core, Knopfler was in no real rush to complete the album, always opting for quests for perfection over expediency. In just one example, the percussion parts recorded by drummer Terry Williams over the course of eight weeks were scrapped so Knopfler and Dorfman could start over with a session drummer Omar Hakin. In all, the recording of Brothers in Arms took about five months to complete.

Brothers in Arms also sold so well because it had a monster hit on it. Released as the album’s second single, “Money for Nothing” is a satiric swipe at MTV-fueled stardom that finds Knopfler singing in the voice of a disgruntled average Joe, purportedly based on actual comments he overhead in a New York appliance store that include a display of televisions all tuned to the all-music cable channel. Boosted by a distinctive music video dominated by computer animation that was cutting edge at the time and looks ridiculously rudimentary now, “Money for Nothing” climbed to the top of the Billboard chart and stayed there for three weeks. It wasn’t the first time MTV was instrumental to a song reaching the highest position on the pop charts, but its arguably the example that cemented the network as the prime hitmaker of the moment.

Otherwise, Brothers in Arms probably is the Platonic ideal of a Dire Straits album. It’s got a hint of jazz (“Your Latest Trick”), a strong undercurrent of light blues (“So Far Away”), and a general vibe that’s exploratory while paradoxically lacking curiosity (“Ride Across the River” has a smattering World Music sounds, like a snoozier, less committed version of Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD-esque inclinations). “Walk of Life” epitomizes one side of the band with its bland jauntiness (there’s a reason the devious geniuses at the WOL Project locked onto the track), and the title cut, a ballad so refined it almost becomes inert, is an equally ideal example of another side. Dire Straits wasn’t going to make anyone tremble with the sense of rock ‘n’ roll danger they coaxed from their instruments, but Brothers in Arms suggests smooth professionalism has its place, too.

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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