College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #62 to #60

62. Pretenders, Learning to Crawl (1984)

Around a year after their release of Pretenders II and following the tour that supported it, Chrissie Hynde convened a band meeting. Bassist Pete Farndon was told of his ouster from the group, a result of his debilitating heroin addiction. Only two days later, James Honeyman-Scott, the band’s lead guitarist, died of a heart attack that was attributed to his use of cocaine. In less than a week, one of the hottest new bands saw their roster cut in half by the harsh enticements and indulgences that came with the rock star lifestyle. Although Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers were back into the studio before too long with some guest musicians, there were further diversions from the task of reworking the lineup in a more permanent way and getting down to the task of recording a full new studio album. Hynde nearly married Ray Davies, the legendary frontman of the Kinks and did have a child with him. In the midst of those personal changes, word came through the Farndon died of a drug overdose. All told, two and a half years passed before the release of the the Pretenders’ sophomore album and their third full-length studio effort, the aptly named Learning to Crawl.

Hynde made it clear that the album’s title was inspired by her young daughter’s developmental experimentation with getting around on her own, but it also suited where this new version of the Pretenders were at. After those handful of recording sessions with other player, two new official members were brought into the fold: guitarist Robbie McIntosh and bassist Malcolm Foster. The situation naturally presented challenges and opportunities.

“It takes a long time for a group to develop a sound and have all the personalities settle in,” Hynde said at the time. “The new guys have their own musical ideas, but their open, too. They’ll try anything, and that’s important.”

Although the newcomers contributed suggestions, the Pretenders were decisively Hynde’s band with Learning to Crawl. For the first time on an LP, Hynde had solo songwriting credits on all the originals. And what an amazing batch of originals it is. After two previous albums of brash, fairly straightforward rock tunes, Hynde brought complexity to the proceedings without ceding a bit of urgency. The lyrics were about her place in the world at that moment: mourning lost friends, adjusting to motherhood, and generally living the life of an adult rather than a reckless kid. On the bracing album opener “Middle of the Road,” Hynde states it plainly: “I’m not the cat I used to be/ I got a kid, I’m thirty-three, baby.”

With expert playing and crisp production by longtime collaborator Chris Thomas, the Pretenders pinball between the the tender “Show Me,” the honky-tonk gallop of “Thumbelina,” and the rueful, luminous “My City Was Gone” (“I went back to Ohio/ But my pretty countryside/ Had been paved down the middle/ By a government that had no pride”). “Time the Avenger” locks into a sharp nineteen-sixties groove but imbues it with a modern sensibility as Hynde wrestles with the relentlessness of aging (“Time, one more vodka and lime/ To help paralyze that little/ Tick, tick tick tick”). Any given listen to the album is likely to produce a different high point. As I type this, I’m prepared to name it as “Back on the Chain Gang,” its opening riff so simple, clean, and perfect that it practically gleams. The band even delivers a sentimental Christmas song, “2000 Miles,” that manages the uncommon feat of being poignant rather than cloying.

Hynde’s songs across Learning to Crawl are so strong that the requisite cover, a totally suitable pass at the Persuaders’ “Thin Line Between Love and Hate,” feels like a unnecessary distraction. The Pretenders didn’t really need to borrow other act’s songs any longer. They were good enough to stand tall without that assistance.

61. Tracy Chapman, Tracy Chapman (1988)

In the mid-nineteen-eighties, Tufts University student Brian Koppelman was organizing an anti-Apartheid protest and wanted to include a protest singer at the event. After asking around, one of his friends tipped him off to a classmate named Tracy Chapman who regularly busked around town and played occasional gigs at local coffee shops. When he heard her perform, Koppelman immediately felt her talent deserved an even larger audience. As it happened, he had the connections provide exactly that. His father was Charles Koppelman, a former top executive with CBS Records who had recently struck out with a couple of partners to form the independent music publishing company SBK Entertainment World, Inc. The younger Koppelman pitched this young, Black, female singer-songwriter to his pop. She had a demo tape she’d recorded at the college radio station, mostly to establish the copyright on her songs. When the Charles Koppelman heard that tape and saw her perform, he agreed she was a major talent. After overcoming some initial skepticism on her part, he signed Chapman. Shortly after she graduated from Tufts with a degree in anthropology, he was instrumental in her securing a major label contract with Elektra Records.

Initial attempts to record her debut album didn’t go well. There was difficulty finding a producer who was interesting in talking on the project, and an early attempt with an inexperienced fellow behind the boards and a crew of antic session musicians went so poorly that Chapman threatened to walk if there was a change in personnel. Prospects improved when she connect with David Kershenbaum, a regular studio collaborator with Joe Jackson. Although he’d mostly worked on album that were far slicker than what Chapman had in mind, Kershenbaum was actively looking for a smaller-scale, acoustic-based project. He was prepared to give Chapman the space to be herself on record in way unlike anyone else she’d encountered in a music industry that was at that moment most committed to banging pop and inane hair metal. Basically, Kershenbaum had the good sense to plainly present the artist who’d knocked out the Koppelman clan in the first place. Chapman’s debut album was self-titled, totally fitting for such a pure, powerful expression of her voice.

Tracy Chapman is masterful from start to finish. Although Chapman had predecessors she called to mind, such as Joan Armatrading and any number of folk singers, and even rough contemporaries who operated in a similar milieu, Suzanne Vega chief among them, she still came across as singular. The album’s opener, “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution,” is imbued with sentiments that could have sprung from Pete Seeger’s banjo and upturned chin, but Chapman enlivens the song with a piercing accuracy that has the immediacy of news reporting: “While they’re standing in the welfare lines/ Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation/ Wasting time in the unemployment lines/ Sitting around waiting for a promotion.” It’s a rallying cry and a promise that’s ultimately too honest to be hollowly hopeful. Chapman binds the stridency to unwavering acknowledgement of the often-unstated need. After that rattling job, the album delivers its real roundhouse punch with “Fast Car,” an incredibly evocative and moving song about small, aching lives of troubled romance and dead-end jobs, where the main fantasy is escape: “You got a fast car/ Is it fast enough so we can fly away?/ We gotta make a decision/ Leave tonight or live and die this way.”

Although folk was the succinct and generally accurate term to describe Chapman’s sound, that didn’t necessary capture the variance she brought to the album, whether on the tender balladry of “Baby Can I Hold You” or the bluesy “For My Lover.” Chapman acknowledged as much when Rolling Stone asked her if she considered herself a folk singer.

“I guess the answer’s yes and no,” Chapman responded. “I think what comes to mind is the Anglo-American tradition of the folk singer, and they don’t think about the Black roots of folk music. So in that sense, no, I don’t. My influence and my background are different. In some ways, it’s a combination of the black and white folk traditions.”

What’s certain is that Chapman was fully engaged with the moment, singing truth with a jolting clarity. The cut “Behind the Wall,” performed a capella, recounts hearing domestic abuse on the other side of the wall and includes lyrics about the institutional indifference that allows such cruelty to persist: “It won’t do no good to call/ The police always come late/ If they come at all.” “Across the Lines” starkly addresses racial divides that can erupt in violence, and he insistent “Why?” offers a whole litany of modern ills (“Why are the missiles called peacekeepers/ When they’re aimed to kill/ Why is a woman still not safe/ When she’s in her home”). Chapman’s perspective was clear-eyed and all too rarely shared in popular music at the time.

In direct contrast to the initial conviction of her label that Chapman’s music required some studio enhancements, her debut album was a sensation. “Fast Car” was a Top 10 hit and Tracy Chapman topped the charts all over the world, including in the U.S. (the album was ousted from the pinnacle of the Billboard tally by Def Leppard’s Hysteria, to give an idea of how much Chapman was unlike anyone else triumphing in the music marketplace). Chapman was nominated for six Grammys that year and won three, including Best New Artist.

60. Peter Gabriel, Security (1982)

“I only ask that people listen to the music a few times,” Peter Gabriel said shortly after the release of his fourth studio album as a solo artist. “It’s not crucial to me that people understand everything I wanted to say, but rather that they give it time for the atmosphere to soak in and get through the initial strangeness.”

The former Genesis leader had a new Fairlight CMI synthesizer, which was very much the esoteric musician’s tantalizing toy of the moment. He also had a growing fascination with music created outside of more familiar borders and was engaged by all manner of sociological and philosophical topics. If those elements didn’t exactly cohere into an album that was quite as impenetrable as Gabriel’s above quote implies, it wasn’t basic love songs and power chords either. “The Rhythm of the Heat” incorporates tribal rhythms and has lyrics inspired by Carl Jung’s experience with an African trance ceremony as detailed in the hefty tome Memories, Dreams, Reflections. “Lay Your Hands on Me” brings quietly intensity and vivid percussion to a song at least partially inspired by faith healing ceremonies, though that can be difficult to discern in the lyrics: “Working in gardens, thornless roses/ Fat men play with their garden hoses/ Poolside laughter has a cynical bite/ Sausage speared by the cocktail satellite.”

The album was self-titled in the U.K., just its three predecessors. Geffen Records, Gabriel’s new label for North American distribution, didn’t find the repetitive album names amusing and instead dubbed it Security, initially without Gabriel’s knowledge and then with his reluctant agreement. Whether that clearing of confusion was entirely necessary, it did coincide with Gabriel having his first significant chart success in the U.S. The intense single “Shock the Monkey” was his first to crack the Billboard Top 40.

In general, the album has a restless energy. Gabriel seems ready to try anything, and that dynamic has an impressively unsettling effect. “Wallflower” is tender enough to betray its origins as a fairly simple love song Gabriel worked on for his preceding album, but the lyrics depict human rights abuses inflicted on political prisoners (“They put you in a box so you can’t get heard/ Let your spirit stay unbroken, may you not be deterred”). Musically, Gabriel is equally daring, erasing boundaries between styles wherever he can, such as on “I Have the Touch,” which somehow draws equally on disco and post-punk.

Pleased as Gabriel was with the more experimental bent his music was talking, he soon got his fill of it when he took on the task of scoring Alan Parker’s film Birdy. Always looking to change things up, Gabriel moved away from song structures that took some getting used to on his next proper studio album. He instead tried to make more immediately approachable songs. It worked.

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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