College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #59 to #57

59. Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) (1983)

Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart had worked together in a couple different bands in the nineteen-seventies: first the Catch and then the Tourists. The success of the bands was never more than modest, but that wasn’t really the point of frustration for Lennox and Stewart. Instead, they found themselves in synch creatively and not especially aligned with everyone else. (They were romantically involved for a portion of the time, which probably contributed to the shared comfort level.) At around the time their frustration with other collaborators was peaking, Stewart was also discovering emerging synthesizer technologies. The technological advances opened up the possibility for the duo to make music without assembling a whole band.

“The closer we got professionally, the more we needed our own space,” Stewart said. “We know each other exactly. It’s like ESP, and for writing and recording, it can be fantastic.”

For their collaboration, they settled on calling themselves Eurythmics, reportedly inspired by Lennox’s childhood experience with the music pedagogy of the same name. Lennox and pitched the new endeavor to the Tourists’ record label, RCA Records. After some initial skepticism — around the pair’s voiced enthusiasm to pursue more experimental ideas and that tricky band name — the label agreed to take them on. Eurythmics recorded their debut album, In the Garden, and RCA released it to complete disinterest. It stiffed so badly that RCA didn’t even bother with a U.S. release. Officially, the label dropped them, but enough allies remained within the A&R ranks that Lennox and Stewart worked on their sophomore full-length with a glimmer of hope that RCA would try again with them. There was a smidgen of interest from a couple singles, but still no signs that a breakthrough was imminent. Then, the band’s sophomore album came out with its title cut released as a single at about the same time, and everything changed.

“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” didn’t sound like anything that had come before, not really. It had the insistence of dance music, but with layers of menace and vocals by Lennox that cut like a stiletto. It’s somehow robotic and earthy at the same time, similar to the enticing alienness of David Bowie’s most norm-upending work. Bolstered by an eye-catching music video, the song was a smash, making it into the Top 10 on charts all over the world and spending a week at the pinnacle position in the U.S. (Somewhat surprisingly, Eurythmics had to settle for the runner-up spot on the chart at home in the U.K.) It didn’t happen incredibly quickly; released as a single in the U.S. in May, it hit the top of the chart in September. It did happen, though. Eurythmics didn’t seem like a tough name to remember any longer.

Future Eurythmics releases were in a state of constant reaction to what had come before, Stewart and Lennox creating music that was engaged in dialogue with their preceding successes and stumbles. Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) comes across differently. It gives the impression of an act that feels they might not get another chance to make a record at this level, so they’re going to hit the listener with everything they’ve got. “Love Is a Stranger” has some parallels to what Giorgio Moroder was up to at the time, as he tried to subtly reshape his disco urgency for a different era. “I Could Give You (A Mirror)” is absolutely packed with sonic ideas and embellishments, and “The City Never Sleeps” is mesmerizing in is elegant sweep. “This Is the House” is a nice bit of lighter dance music, and “The Walk” sweetens its tones with jazzy horn parts. They even offer up an odd, burnished cover of the Sam and Dave R&B classic “Wrap It Up” that emphasizes just how unconventional they were prepared to be, even when delivering music that seems superficially safe. If not everything on the album is wholly successful, it’s all interesting.

After starting the year in uncertainty, Eurythmics were soaring. They weren’t about to let the moment pass without taking full advantage of it. Energized by the success, they were coming up with new material at such a rapid pace, that their follow-up album, Touch, was released less than a year after Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).

58. The Smithereens, Especially for You (1986)

The Smithereens knew rejection. Formed in 1980 after Pat DiNizio placed an ad looking for a drummer to help fill out a demo tape of his songs and things cascaded into a whole band coming together, the Smithereens toiled away on the East Coast club circuit for years. They played to small, devoted crowds and were rejected by countless labels. They released a couple EP on micro-labels to help keep the dream alive before one of those cassettes finally landed in the mail bin of the California independent label Enigma Records. It turned out a staff in the business department was already a fan of the group, and his advocacy led them to being signed within a few days. Not long after that, Enigma inked a deal to distribute their albums under the Capitol Records brand. Just like that, the Smithereens went from suffering through frustrating indifference from the music industry to a major label act.

Especially for You, the Smithereens’ full-length debut was recorded in its own rush. Working with producer Don Dixon, they banged out a set of exemplary rock songs in just ten days time. These were battle-tested tunes, and they come across as such. “Strangers When We Meet,” the opening track and first single, showcases DiNizio’s nearly unparalleled skill for deliver piquant emotion in irresistible hooks. The directness of the lyrics (“We can’t go on this way/ I really love you/ But I love him too/ She said take care, okay”) only adds to their oomph. There’s no pretension. The Smithereens was to celebrate what pop song can do.

The album is a procession of winners, like a greatest hits album all it’s own: the swingy coolness of “Groovy Tuesday,” the gloomy, wallowing ballad “Cigarette” (“Just like this cigarette, our time is running down/ Only one hour til you’re leaving this town”), and the seething “Blood and Roses” come across as utterly effortless in their airtight construction. “Crazy Mixed-Up Kid”mighty be the jauntiest song ever recorded where the singer laments, “I cry my eyes out.” Although it occasionally brought out DiNizio’s grumpier side when it was pointed out, there’s a clear echo of the very best nineteen-sixties pop rock to the Smithereens strongest songs. “I Don’t Want to Lose You” could have raced up the charts in the heart of the British Invasion, and the fiery “Behind the Wall of Sleep” even leans into the comparison with the opening lyrics “She had hair like Jeannie Shrimpton back in 1965/ She had legs that never ended/ I was halfway paralyzed.”

Further proving that the Smithereens had arrived with this album, a few musicians with particular cool-kid cache agreed to contribute. In addition to Dixon, college rock royalty for his stint producer early R.E.M. efforts, kindred spirit Marshall Crenshaw steps in, albeit using the alias Jerome Jerome. Maybe the more important signifier of the welcome elevation in status the band enjoyed in the addition of Suzanne Vega’s backing vocals on the tender torch song “In a Lonely Place.” Before Vega and DiNizio were major recording artists, they were coworkers on a dreaded day job. There, Vega had cause to hand DiNizio a metaphorical pink slip. Now, in talent and status, they were in harmony.

57. A Flock of Seagulls, A Flock of Seagulls (1982)

“We bought all this equipment and we were knocking out this horrendous sound, and we were just in heaven,” Mike Score, the distinctively coiffed frontman of A Flock of Seagulls, said of the band’s early days.

Trying to make the sound a little less horrendous in order to make a proper living became a lot more important when all four band members lost their day jobs at about the same time. Luckily, they managed they task, earning more and more attention for their synth-driven pop. They got signed to Jive Records and after some singles and an EP, A Flock of Seagulls released their self-titled debut album.

The attention-getting single and clear standout track “I Ran (So Far Away)” demonstrates what A Flock of Seagulls could accomplish when everything came together. The track sounds abstractly epic with the sweep on the synths, the percussion flutter in the middle, and the odd yet intense lead vocals by Score. It’s enveloping in its invention, a prime example of why new wave was so defining for the decade. It’s not that A Flock of Seagull had no ancestors, as is evident on the album.“Modern Love Is Automatic” is like a warmer version of krautrock, and “Telecommunication” is mildly Devo-ish. But it all still sounds bold and distinctive. If it sometimes threatens the aurally smear together as one big sound rather than a set of divided songs, well, that’s part of the charm, too. The album plays like an experience.

A Flock of Seagulls could be offered up as an exemplar of what is most commonly thought of the prevailing pop sound of the nineteen-eighties. As if to emphasize that point, “Space Age Love Song” comes across as the high John Hughes was chasing with every song he selected for one of his movie soundtracks. Surely there must have been a scene in a teen-romp flick that the slick instrumental “D.N.A.” could have backed up.

Boosted by MTV, A Flock of Seagulls had a brief but significant swing with pop stardom. The gimmicky of their band member and their visual style put them at a bit of a disadvantage, though. They made more good music, but sometimes struggled to be taken seriously. They might have only had a brief jolt of success, but the music they made merited the attention.

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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