56. Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Globe of Frogs (1988)
“My songs are drawn from the same material dreams are,” Robyn Hitchcock told a reporter not long after the release of Globe of Frogs, his first album with A&M Records. “I don’t attempt to construct them from newspapers. I don’t write to cause a reaction. I don’t seem to have any choice. I’d be really happy to write coherent lyrics like Paul Simon or dumb lyrics like Debbie Gibson or Belinda Carlisle, but I’m stuck with writing the lyrics I write the same way an anteater is stuck with a need to eat ants and has a big snout to enable him to do so. I simply do what I do. I don’t have any choice in the matter.”
When Hitchcock was signed by A&M Records, he stuck out as one of the less likely candidates for a mainstream crossover on the major label’s roster. That could have stirred worries of heavy-handed pressure to change in a way that better suited the preferences of the masses, but Hitchcock insisted on and got — at least initially — total creative control over his output for the label. The exchange for that autonomy was that he and his backing band at the time, the Egyptians, would be given a comparative pittance to record their albums. Globe of Frogs was produced by the band along with longtime cohort Pat Collier. Insistent opening track “Tropical Flesh Mandala” includes the the lyrics “Floating in a moist exotic pool/ Feeling so good-natured I could drool” and “Underneath your ribcage and your skin/ Honey, there’s a new way to get in,” as if to offer the immediate reassurance that Hitchcock’s style wasn’t being finessed by the new bosses in the slightest.
As it turned out, the additional promotional oomph that A&M could provide could result in untempered Hitchcock getting an out-of-left-field hit, albeit a very modest, cult-hero kind of hit. Hitchcock wrote “Balloon Man” for the Bangles. After receiving no response from the ascendent quartet, he decided to record the song himself, perhaps adopting some of the bouncy cheer he imagined coming from the intended performers. Although Hitchcock sometimes expressed mild consternation that “Balloon Man” became his best known song, it really is a nice encapsulation of his unique talent for putting powerful, relatively straightforward emotional metaphors (“And it rained like a slow divorce”) up against pure absurdity (“And Balloon Man blew up in my hand/ He spattered me with tomatoes, Hummus, chick peas/ And some strips of skin”) and somehow making it all snap together as securely as well-matched Lego blocks.
The entirety of Globe of Frogs is quite strong. This was Hitchcock in one of his most productive periods, and he makes the neo-psychedelic swirl of “Vibrating” and the skulking, stalking intensity of “The Shapes Between Us Turn Us Into Animals” seems utterly effortless. “Sleeping with Your Devil Mask” is as forceful and unsettling as title promises, and “Chinese Bones” is delicately elegant in a way that keeps pace with what XTC was up to at the time while added a layer of the offbeat to emphasize that he was the only person who could author it (“As the light shines through your Chinese bones/ I met an interesting dwarf and I told him a story/ As he walked towards the east then the shadow was right/ Something Shakespeare never said was ‘You’ve got to be kidding'”). The parenthetical title of “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)” gives an more overt nod to one of Hitchcock’s foundational influences; the cut is like new wave genetically spliced into Rubber Soul.
Globe of Frogs was Hitchcock’s first album to make an appearance on the Billboard album chart. Between that and the MTV curiosity about “Balloon Man,” A&M Records evidently started to rethinking their more modest expectations for Hitchcock. In the years and albums to come, they applied escalating pressure for Hitchcock to spruce up his material in a play for reaching a wider audience. It didn’t really take, and Hitchcock kept right on making the music he made. Like he said, he could only be himself. For the faithful, that’s worked just fine.
55. The Cars, Shake It Up (1981)
When it was time to record their fourth studio album, the Cars committed to their hometown. After recording their first three LPs in different locales — London, Los Angeles, and New York City, to be precise — they used the funds they’d accumulated from their string of hits to purchase Intermedia Studios in Boston, renaming the facility Syncro Sound. They assembled there with their regular producer to that point, Roy Thomas Baker, and worked through a new set of songs. Maybe mindful of some of the grumbles that greeted the mild experimentation of their preceding full-length release, Panorama, the Cars recommitted to tight, forthright pop-rock songs.
The Cars’ reward for going back to basics on the album, titled Shake It Up, was their first Top 10 hit. Although they were already mainstays of album rock radio, the spunky title cut was their first single to earn significant crossover airplay. It was followed the by the Top 40 near miss “Since You’re Gone,” which actually felt like a vote of commercial confidence rather than a disappointment. There was a sense from the band, their label, and the industry that the Cars were a couple tweaks away from becoming unstoppably big. Of course, I may be letting hindsight creep into this assessment, because that’s exactly how things played out three years later when they finally released a follow-up album.
“Well, it took us four years to sound the same,” frontman Ric Ocasek said when asked about criticism that the Cars were getting a little redundant on Shake It Up, a weird gripe considering how much grief they received for striving for different sonic textures on Panorama. “It took me eight years of writing songs to get them to all sound the same. We’re the same band, and we’re going to sound like the Cars.”
That really is the most accurate description of Shake It Up. It sounds like the Cars. It might be snaky and tense, as with “Victim of Love,” or pick up just a hint of speedy agitation, heard most clearly on “Maybe Baby,” but they mainly sound like themselves. The chunky cut “Cruiser” is about as Cars-y of Cars songs as can be imagined. The weird blips and bloops that pepper “Think It Over” stand as the only real sign of lucrative adjustments to come. Every the band was getting a little worn out with sticking the with the same basic chords. Following the tour in support of Shake It Up, they took an extended break, their first since breaking onto the national scene with their self-titled debut, released in 1978.
54. Love and Rockets, Express (1986)
When guitarist Daniel Ash, bassist David J, and drummer Kevin Haskins followed up their fractious tenure in Bauhaus, they collectively agreed that they felt liberated. Working with frontman Peter Murphy wasn’t easy for a multitude of reasons, but in some ways the real challenge of Bauhaus was feeling confined by the influential goth rock sound they forged together. Whether due to audience expectation or internally set restraint, the three of them were limited in their ability to develop a significant range. Everything was different in the new band they formed, Love and Rockets.
“We’ve got more range to explore any type of music,” Haskins said around the time that Love and Rockets’ sophomore LP, Express, was released. “We were restricted in a sense with Bauhaus. But we feel a lot more relaxed about it now. We have to keep the music fresh for ourselves.”
On Express, Love and Rockets are still finding their way on this next journey they set out upon. If it’s a little messy and uncertain at times, the sense of abandon — that they might do anything from one cut to the next — it’s thrilling, too. Exemplifying the anything-goes approach, the aching song “All in My Mind” appears twice on the album, in electric and acoustic versions. Both are so good that the repetition comes across as essential. There’s no reason to choose only one. If they can craft the acid rock of “Life in Laralay” and the vaguely Cure-like pop of “It Could Be Sunshine” with equal aplomb, pressing their own distinct personality into both, why not put every but of it into the grooves of the record.
The sprawling spirit of the record also manifests in a certain amount of playfulness. The exquisite grind of “Kundalini Express” serves lyrics that tweak spiritual tropes in a manner that straddles the line between tribute and spoofery: “This is an announcement/ For the transcendental run/ The train now standing/ Leaves for higher planes.” “Yin and Yang (The Flowerpot Man),” remixed for the original U.S. album release, similarly comes across as goofy and serious at once. The and-the-kitchen-sink-too energy is fortified on that U.S. version of Express with the inclusion of their inventive cover of the the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” an early single for Love and Rockets. The cut wasn’t recorded for Express and yet it fits on there just dandy.
As they toured in support of Express, Love and Rockets were already talking about which direction they’d veer in next. They speculated that some of the rougher distortion found on Express would be set aside in favor of more acoustic material. That instinct worked out well for them.
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.