College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #65 to #63

65. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Punch the Clock (1983)

As he did from time to time, Elvis Costello decided he wanted to make an album with broader appeal. Following the critical drubbing and commercial disappointment of his 1981 country music covers album, Almost Blue, Costello largely atoned with the former camp with the release of his next studio album with backing band the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom. Music writers were largely back, but the general music-buying public and radio programmers remained lukewarm. Costello made a determined attempt to write songs that he thought could earn a spot on the airwaves and brought in producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had presided over sizable hits with Madness and, more recently, Dexys Midnight Runners. The result was Punch the Clock, Costello’s eighth studio album.

By one measurement, Costello clearly met his goal. The voluminous praise heaped on Costello by music writers in the U.S. had notoriously never translated into hit singles. Costello hadn’t placed any songs on the Billboard Hot 100. The closest he came was with the Armed Forces track “Accidents Will Happen,” which peaked at #101, as if in an act of mockery. The futility finally broke with “Everyday I Write the Book,” a tender pop song that tended toward balladry and took its central metaphor to playful, logical lengths (“You said you’d stand by me in the middle of Chapter Three/ But you were up to your old tricks in Chapters Four, Five, and Six”). It was hardly a smash, climbing no higher than #36 in the U.S., but the pop chart losing streak was snapped.

In its totality, Punch the Clock is an agreeable album. It’s also one of the least memorable from the early arc of his career, lacking either the fire of earlier efforts or the erudition of creative peaks to come. It’s probably most notable for Costello’s readiness to reckon with some of the politics of the moment, which some U.K. music journalist had been agitating for. Piercing ballad “Shipbuilding” is Costello’s reaction to the Falkland Islands war (“Within weeks they’ll be re-opening the shipyard/ And notifying the next of kin”), and the skulking “Pills and Soap” capitalism’s unchecked abuses of animal as an entryway to a general diatribe against profits-above-all societies (“Some folk have all the luck/ And all we get is pictures of Lord and Lady Muck/ They come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy/ There are ashtrays of emotion for the fag ends of the aristocracy”). There’s a forcefulness to the material that demonstrates Costello’s endlessly impressive evolution as a songwriter.

Part of the scheme was to bring a greater array of instrumentation to the record, in particular the brass section he’s recently toured with that was now officially dubbed the TKO Horns. Fittingly, this crew of skilled players is most winningly prominent on the buoyant “T.K.O. (Boxing Day),” which recalls the classic R&B throwbacks found on the 1980 album Get Happy!! They also figure on the brightly buoyant “Let Them All Talk.” Elsewhere, Costello has some success aping the chiming British pop of the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies on “The Element Within Her.” Even when the lyrics show some of Costello’s trademark thorniness, most of Punch of Clock sounds just plain nice. Costello himself was fairly dissatisfied with the album, a fairly characteristic reaction from him. He was initially perturbed by its slickness, an impression that only strengthened over the years.

“Now to be honest I haven’t always been kind about this album,” he wrote in the liner notes of one its many reissues. “I find it hard to ignore the benefit of hindsight.”

64. Joe Jackson, Night and Day (1982)

‘”Rock-and-roll is too narrow and limiting,” Joe Jackson told The New York Times shortly after the release of his fifth studio album, Night and Day. ”That’s why I’ve been trying to make connections with earlier traditions. I’ve always been a jazz fan. My all-time hero is Charlie Parker. There’s so much about rock-and-roll tradition that I hate. The idea of ‘hope I die before I get old,’ for instance. For me, whatever golden age there was in rock is definitely long gone.”

After bursting forth in 1979 with two instant classics of new wave, Look Sharp! and I’m the Man, Jackson did everything he could to shared any expectation about what he would do next. Eschewing the style that got him radio airplay in the first place, Jackson embraced his far less commercial instincts with his next two albums, the all-over-the-place Beat Crazy and the big band tribute Jumpin’ Jive. Both have their moments, but they largely left music fans flummoxed. Jackson was too firmly iconoclastic to believe that Night and Day was an attempt to swing his artistic sensibility back to a more palatable place for the larger populace. Even so, that’s exactly what he did. His songwriting and playing is elegant across the album, intelligent without being distancing. The chilliness that could sometimes invade his art was entirely absolutely. It’s a warm, engaging album that’s also rich is complexity.

In it’s basic construction, Night and Day in sequenced with a simple yet effective gimmick. The first side, the “Night” side, is more fevered and energetic, the different tracks blending together as if by a DJ’s segues. The flip, the “Day” side, is a quieter affair, dominated by contemplative ballads. Jackson laid out his thinking in a print advertisement laid out like an interview: “Nighttime represents excitement. Daytime is when you have to cope with life and think about what’s happening — and get over your hangover…like the point between getting over one hangover and acquiring another.”

Even without the conceit, which really does work, the set of songs is exemplary. “Another World” is expansive and slyly funky, and “Target” is almost frenetic. “Steppin’ Out,” which became Jackson’s highest charting single in the U.S., is elegant and amazingly evocative in its storytelling: “You can dress in pink and blue just like a child/ And in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile/ We’ll be there in just a while, if you follow/ Me, babe, steppin’ out.” With equal skill, he delivers a jabbing lament for the erasure of all pleasure from modern life in “Cancer” (“Everything gives you cancer/ There’s no cure, there’s no answer”), a bold and delicate ballad with “A Slow Song,” and the powerful heartbreak of “Breaking Us in Two” (“Why does what I’m saying hurt you/ I didn’t say that we were through/ Always something breaking us in two”).

It’s possible that Jackson was never more bold than he is on the cut “Real Men,” A spare, wrenching song that is lushly produced, it addresses issues of toxic masculinity years before the concept was a central part of the discourse and challenges the listener to interpret Jackson’s view on how manly constructs play out in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships: “See the nice boys – dancing in pairs/ Golden earring golden tan/ Blow-wave in the hair/ Sure they’re all straight – straight as a line/ All the gays are macho/ Can’t you see the leather shine.” There is, to use another shard of terminology that would have seemed foreign to anyone at the time, a lot to unpack. It’s bracing in its complication. Really, the same can be said for all of Night and Day.

63. Adam and the Ants, Kings of the Wild Frontier (1980)

Not long after the release of Adam and the Ants’ debut album, Dirk Wears White Sox, the band’s frontman, Adam Ant, made a simple decision that wound up have major consequences. He wanted to change managers, and asked Malcolm McLaren, the impresario behind the Sex Pistols, to take on those duties. In short order, McLaren convinced most of the band — specifically, guitarist Matthew Ashman, bassist Leigh Gorman, and drummer Dave Barbe — to leave Adam and the Ants to join teenaged singer Annabella Lwin in a new group he was putting together. The Ants became three-fourths of Bow Wow Wow, and Adam Ant was left without a band.

After stewing for a bit, Adam Ant started over. He recruited a new group of collaborators, most notably guitarist Marco Pirroni. The two started writing songs together and generated new material promising enough to be signed by major label CBS Records. With the band’s new drummer, Chris Hughes, serving as producer, the newly constituted version of Adam and the Ants recorded what was officially the sophomore album under that billing, Kings of the Wild Frontier.

What the album lacks in complexity it makes up for with headlong verve. Kings of the Wild Frontier opens with the insistent “Dog Eat Dog,” its fevered percussion a statement that there was no intention of ceding those racing rhythms to the drummer who’d slipped away. The band repeatedly plies its thumping, stylish pop on strangely incongruous forms, such as Dick Dale’s laconic version of surf rock with “Killer in the Home” or a sea shanty on “Jolly Roger.” “Los Racheros” and title cut are like spaghetti western themes heaved around the rock tumbler of the New Romantic pop movement that was emergent in the U.K. in that moment. Maybe the highest compliment that can be paid to all this virulent genre melding is that the cool stride of “Antmusic” almost suggests the Clash with their punk instincts significantly dampened. If nothing else, Kings of the Wild Frontier is fiercely distinct.

“People either like us or they don’t,” Ant said at the time of the album’s release. “There can be no in-between stage. And I’ll be sticking to my guns and aspirations whatever happens.”

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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