College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #53 to #51

53. New Order, Low-Life (1985)

When Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Stephen Morris officially formed New Order together, they knew that the music they made under that moniker was going to be compared to their previous band, Joy Division. If that situation made them feel confined, it didn’t show. Following a debut LP that remained largely faithful to what they’d done previously, New Order made a statement of distinct identity with their sophomore album, Power, Corruption & Lies.

New Order spent some time figuring out what they’d do next by working on other artist’s tracks and albums. Within the fairly insular world of their primary label, Factory Records, the various members of New Order took on production chores and other bits of sonic tinkering, developing a greater understanding of how far they could stretch their electronic music instincts. At around the same time, their growing fan base earned them attention from some fairly unlikely quarters. They were signed to Qwest Records, the vanity label Quincy Jones had set up at Warner Bros. The only other newcomer to the label that year was an upstart named Frank Sinatra

They went into the recording of their third album, Low-Life, with some material already more or less worked out. Notably, they’d crafted a seventeen-minute track inspired by Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti Western themes for a film project that was quickly abandoned. Not ones to let good ideas molder on the shelf, New Order pared it down to the cut “Elegia,” which is intricate, dramatic, and daunting epic, all in just under five minutes. Leading off the second side of the album, “Elegia” demonstrates the booming ambition New Order could bring to their art. The rest of Low-Life is a stunning expression of how monumental the band’s music was already becoming. The wore their history as the charged into the future. Despite how meticulously crafted their material sounds, New Order was as enlivened by a moment-to-moment creation process as any garage rock band.

“We do a lot of jamming, which we record,” keyboardist and guitarist Gillian Gilbert explained shortly after Low-Life‘s release. “Then we go back, listen to it, and take what we like. Usually we stick to our own instruments, but not always. For example, I came up with the bass line to ‘Love Vigilantes’ and Steven played drums.”

“Love Vigilantes” is a dandy example of the band’s inventiveness. It’s got a slippery twang that enhances the earthy electronica and forlorn lyrics about a forlorn, possibly doomed soldier (“I want to see my family/ My wife and child waiting for me/ I’ve got to go home/ I’ve been so alone, you see”). Burbling “Sub-culture,” sprightly “Face Up,” and shimmery “The Perfect Kiss” are more conventional in some ways, but they’re also marvelously layered, regularly revealing new little nuances with each additional listen. The controlled clatter of “Sunrise” provides the companion to “Elegia,” sounding massive and lean at once.

For anyone still holding out hope that they’d circle back to goth-angst post-punk, Low-Life knocked that asunder. New Order were now unmistakably dance music specialists, drawing on what they were hearing in their nearly nightly excursion to the local clubs. If they borrowed, they made all those sounds their own.

52. Public Image Limited, Happy? (1987)

After a stretch where John Lydon was constantly reinventing his band Public Image Limited on the fly, he finally had a lineup he again wanted to build around. After recording the band’s 1986 full length effort, Album, with a crew of rotating musicians, touring required more of a commitment. He pulled together players who’d logged time with several formidable bands, the Damned, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine, and the Pop Group among them. They clicked well enough that Lydon opted to keep them together for the band’s next album, even excusing producer Bill Laswell from a planned return engagement behind the boards when he expressed a preference for repeating the stream of part-time collaborators through the studio doors. Gary Langan, best for from his extensive work with Queen, was enlisted to preside over the album with the band. In trademark Lydon cynical insolence, the album was titled Happy?

Unfortunately, the album suggests that Lydon is less interesting as a creator when he’s somewhat settled. Maybe it’s not surprising that the maestro of performative rebellion would find comparative comfort to have a slight dulling effect. The distance he was willing to travel from his famed and infamous punk roots into fiery synth-driven music was already well established by this point, but it sometime seems like he’s still coasting a bit on the shock of change from the Johnny Rotten days. “Seattle” is a solid if familiar Public Image Limited track, but more often the material comes across as fairly generic, as with“Angry,” or weirdly inert, “Save Me” standing as a glaring example of the latter. Lydon would take umbrage, of course, with this sort of dismissal of these cuts sounding too confined by his own style. He said as much when asked about the music press categorized his music.

“They seem to love to do this — heavy metal is dealt with in this section, punk is dealt with in that section, here’s the disco section, blah blah blah,” Lydon told a reporter at the time. “I say, sod that! I refuse to be told I’m not supposed to be like any one particular thing. I decide this for myself. I’m not looking for an image to adopt — I don’t think any of us should.”

There are undoubtedly pleasures to be found on Happy? I’m fond of the cresting waves of guitars on “Rules and Regulations,” and I think anyone has to admit that Lydon barking out lyrics such as “The slogan will take you like lemmings to the cliff/ You’ll feel better than ever, and into the abyss,” as he does on “Hard Times,” has a universe-in-balance quality that is going to be at least somewhat satisfying. This time, though, the fury is less convincing.

51. The Human League, Dare (1981)

The Human League were starting to build some momentum in their U.K. homeland when the group’s lineup endured personnel changes that threatened to derail everything. Founding members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who were central to the band’s synth-driven sound, departed as creative and personal differences mounted, going on to form Heaven 17. That left Philip Oakey as the prime driver of the group, and he promptly stirred confusion in the music press by hiring teenagers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley as backup singers and stage dancers, which hardly seemed aligned with the significance of the holes that needed to be filled because of the departures. Oakley might have been trying to specifically avoid the conflicts that nearly did in the band. He wanted the Human League to go in a more commercial direction; now he could make that happen.

Dare was the result of Oakley taking the Human League straight at the mainstream, the most fruitful result being “Don’t You Want Me.” A tale of romance with male and female vocals offering their different perspectives on a shared history, sung by Oakley and Sulley, the cut was released as a single and became a major hit. The song is deft and cinematic in its storytelling, and it is build on the sort of hooks that ensure it is going to lock into the memory forever. Any list of cuts that define nineteen-eighties music is suspect if this one isn’t included.

Nothing else on Dare is quite in the same sly, shiny mode. The lack of clones is a positive. Oakley and company are continually stretching the limits of what they can do with synth-pop. The album moves from one highlight to another, whether the pushing “The Sound of the Crowd” or the terrifically fidgety “Do or Die.” The Human league proves especially adept at smuggling commentary into bouncy dance music, as with the satirical jabs at capitalism on “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of” (“Everybody needs love and adventure/ Everybody needs money to spend”). Similarly, “Seconds” is incredibly catchy even as it dispenses lyrics about how easy it is to cause fatal harm to another person; “It took seconds of your time to take his life/ It took seconds.” The contrast even works when the sunny-sounding pop is put with less serious but still dark material, like the evocations of 2000 AD dystopian law enforcement officials on “I Am the Law” (“With gun and bike he rules the streets/ And every perp he meets will taste defeat/ Not even Death can overcome his might/ Cause Dredd and Anderson, they won the fight”).

Although the Human League had several more hits, including another chart-topper, and never stopped making music, Dare is surely consumes a lot of space in their legacy. Some albums are so strong that they can’t do anything but dominate an artist’s presence. Dare qualifies.

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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