Specifically, "In a Place Like This" - the title track of the band's full-length 1981 debut album - rocks with an earnest fury not often heard in the North American new wave scene so popular at the time. Aside from a thrumming synthesizer opening, the song focuses squarely on Hyde's compelling vocals and Rock's assertive guitar. Even better, the lyrics lay out a compelling narrative of a struggling male protagonist who just wants to escape the drudgery of an ordinary, stifling life. One attempted path for such transcendence traditionally lies in the perceived glitz and glory of rock and roll, but Hyde and Rock already knew and would later learn more than anyone how fleeting and frustrating such a pursuit can be. So I guess it's rather fitting in a morose sort of way that this genuinely exciting rock band never really found a sizable audience outside its native Canada, at least not one commensurate to its leaders' simple, gritty charms. Certainly, no one wants to live or die "in a place like this" when that place has a tendency to feel like a variation on death all along. This is powerful stuff that deserves to be heard and savored.
- Listen to "In a Place Like This" in its entirety here.
- Top Canadian Artists of the '80s
- Power Pop Genre Profile
Album Cover Image Courtesy of A&M
This Thanksgiving weekend, many Americans are spending at least a few moments - between heaping mouthfuls both savory and sweet - thinking about the many aspects of living for which they are grateful. For music lovers, that list sometimes contains far more musicians who are literal strangers but virtual loved ones than the actual people who make up our extended families. Of all the '80s music that inspires appreciation in me, a great deal of it - as I've admitted often and previously in this space - falls into the general category of melodic guitar rock. There are certainly plenty of exceptions to that generality, but as people tend to reveal when they peruse and select their favorite holiday foods at mealtime, we like what we like and have a tendency to go back for more of the same.
In my case, power pop through the ages is a nearly surefire traditional favorite, guaranteed to please and satisfy. In terms of the late '70s leading into the early '80s, such music continues to be a gift that keeps on giving, as new discoveries seem to lurk in corners of pop music history that I previously imagined to be thoroughly explored. American band Off Broadway enjoyed a criminally brief period of success between 1979 and 1981, releasing two major-label studio albums before abruptly fading away. Still, that doesn't take away from the punchy, immediate appeal of "Stay in Time," a truly signature melodic rock tune that completely ignores the emerging new wave aesthetic in favor of old-fashioned directness. This song reached its modest top peak of No. 51 on the Billboard pop charts in late 1979, but Illinois-based Off Broadway's debut LP, simply titled On, continued to attract attention well into 1980. Perhaps the band's unwillingness to court the skinny-tie trend in a more commercial fashion led to its premature fizzle, because a lack of power pop-inspired, muscular delicacy is certainly not the culprit. So here's to a different kind of holiday savoring this weekend: all of the pleasure and none of the guilt.
- Sample or download "Stay in Time" here.
- Top Cheap Trick Songs of the '80s
- Top Elvis Costello Songs of the '80s
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Atlantic
A recently released compilation album, Out of the Darkness, deftly chronicles the rise and fall of this quintessentially indie band that couldn't quite find the right path to ensure longevity or widespread notice. That, of course, doesn't take away from the impact of many of the tracks on this compilation, which often resemble (but never seem to mimic) more successful contemporary Down Under bands like The Church or Hoodoo Gurus. No, Ups & Downs certainly created its own distinct if constantly evolving sound, and any exploration of the band's sonic history translates into time well spent. At the risk of ignoring other worthy tracks, I zero in today on the punchy yet polished rocker "The Living Kind," a tune that illuminates the pleasing, reaching tenor of Atkinson and the band's devotion to jangly guitar goodness. There's plenty of rootsy emotional grit here to go along with an undeniable power pop sheen, and I can't for the life of me imagine how a song like this didn't reach more ears appreciative of early R.E.M. and other Athens-based sounds of the era. No matter, though, because this stuff still sounds phenomenal even two full decades removed from the last gasps of Ups & Downs. Atkinson would go on to front the better-known '90s band Big Heavy Stuff, but Ups & Downs is where it all started for this fine '80s guitar rock craftsman.
- Listen to "The Living Kind" in its entirety here.
- Top '80s Songs of The Church
- Top Down Under Artists of the '80s
- Jangle Pop Genre Profile
Compilation Album Cover Image Courtesy of As Is/Fuse
While it couldn't be convincingly argued that there was a shortage of North American guitar-centered jangle pop during the '80s, the contributions of Canadian band The Grapes of Wrath never feel derivative or like a modern Byrds folk rock pastiche. In fact, a simple distillation of the band's sound is rather impossible given the experimental precision of songwriting team Tom Hooper and Kevin Kane. The best I can come up with in terms of concise description regarding the brilliant acoustic track "Misunderstanding" - the lead-off selection from 1985's September Bowl of Green - is a cross between Toad the Wet Sprocket and They Might Be Giants.
Of course, that hardly tells the story, either, but suffice it to say that the nuanced catalogue of The Grapes of Wrath holds many layered, multi-dimensional surprises that reach far beyond labels like college rock, power pop or folk pop. Most interestingly, there are enough sharp angles and edges in this particular song's punchy arrangement to bear comparison to disparate post-punk artists from R.E.M. to Hoodoo Gurus and back again. Ultimately, this breadth of style serves the band well even if many mainstream radio programmers in the U.S. scratched their heads as to the all-important question of categorization - if they bothered to consider The Grapes of Wrath at all. However, as is often the case, the story was much different in the band's native Canada, where radio was less busy oversaturating the airwaves with Bryan Adams. The band's initial period of activity may have been brief (1985-1992), but that time was packed with highly listenable music not to be missed.
- Sample or download "Misunderstanding" here.
- Top R.E.M. Songs of the '80s
- Top Hoodoo Gurus Songs of the '80s
Compilation Album Cover Image Courtesy of EMI Canada
Fans of British classic rock who really know their music history may well argue that Colin Blunstone is one of the great unsung lead vocalists of all time. In light of the recent first-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination for Blunstone's initial band, The Zombies, this is as good a time as any to explore the gifts - famous and obscure - bestowed upon us by one of '60s rock's most talented singers. Unfortunately, Blunstone has not remained terribly active over the four decades and change since The Zombies last hit the big time with the legendary Top 5 smash "Time of the Season." That's not to say he hasn't continued to make music in a variety of ways, but it does seem accurate to say that Blunstone generally failed to find an apt vehicle for his talents post-Zombies.
Of course, an argument could be made that an exception to this assertion can be found in Blunstone's '80s collaborations with the Alan Parsons Project. In particular, Blunstone scored a minor hit in 1982 with his own composition, "Old and Wise," which appeared on APP's top-selling record from that year, Eye in the Sky. However, fans of The Zombies and Blunstone's soaring tenor may be better served to seek out the lone recording from Parsons offshoot Keats, on which Blunstone performs with appropriate grace a song he co-wrote called "Tragedy." Blunstone's collaboration here with a quartet of key performers from Parsons' often fluctuating lineup yields a wide array of sonic dividends, as power guitars combine with familiar electronic keyboards to form an interesting, elegant take on mid-'80s arena rock. The band's 1984 self-titled LP has never carried a reputation as an indispensable recording of the era, but the quality of musicianship is certainly never in question. Even better, this particular track offers a rare glimpse into the '80s activity of one of rock's most moving vocalists, a man who should soon (even if not in 2014) find his way into rock music's most lauded permanent shrine.
- Sample or download "Tragedy" here.
- Compare prices on Zombies CDs here.
- The Zombies Classic Rock Artist Profile
- The Zombies Oldies Artist Profile
Album Cover Image Courtesy of See for Miles Records
American rock and roll legend Lou Reed, who died last weekend of liver failure in his beloved New York City, was a tough nut to crack. Of course, that cliched phrase can't begin to sum up the complexity of a man who has long served, on his own terms, as one of America's most important musical poets. Still, the phrase somehow seems apt nevertheless, as Reed spent his entire 50 years or so in the pop culture spotlight as a fierce challenger of convention in both thought and art. As a solo artist (which itself followed a hugely influential stint as leader of proto-punk band The Velvet Underground), Reed released nearly two dozen widely disparate original albums of music between 1972 and 2011. During the '80s alone, he produced six of these, culminating with one of his most successful and most critically lauded, 1989's New York. That's an inordinate amount of material from which to try and pull one song that best sums up this American master and his special place in rock music history.
Nevertheless, I'll be one of many this week to take a stab at it. To me, "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" provides especially effective insight into an artist who always tried his best to question everything in the most profound and distinctive ways possible. In this particular case, Reed examines controversial contemporary figures of the period in ways that pretty much no one else in music or even more supposedly "elevated" arenas would dare or conceive of. In the space of just one song, embattled Austrian president Kurt Waldheim joins African-American lightning-rod public figures Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan in becoming the target of Reed's one-of-a-kind critique but at the same time also his empathy and even sympathy. Reed's meditation here on "common ground" as an attainable or perhaps ultimately mythical ideal takes the listener's breath away like a punch in the sternum. Music fans across the globe will dearly miss Reed for a number of reasons both lofty and visceral, but his ability to consider and attack serious-minded topics from so many perspectives may be his most lasting legacy, in my mind. At least until tomorrow, when I think of something else.
- Sample or download "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim" here.
- Compare prices on Lou Reed CDs here.
- Top Obscure & Underground Artists of the '80s
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Sire
I'm not going to kid myself that The Replacements, one of rock and roll's greatest bands of all time that just happened to craft almost its entire career during the '80s, will get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year as a first-time nominee. Hell, it's quite possible such a deserved honor may never come to be at all. Still, if nothing else, last week's announcement of the 2014 nominees gives me a perfect excuse to roll out yet another classic tune from The Replacements' immensely rich catalogue. This is a band, after all, that personifies the danger, defiance and immediacy that have defined rock and roll from its very beginning. Frontman Paul Westerberg may have always been a pop songwriting purist, but the band itself distinguished itself not through the pursuit of recorded perfection but as a ragged, ramshackle outfit built on unpredictability and raw passion. I could certainly make long-winded, poetic appeals in favor of The Replacements' enshrinement, but I really prefer to bypass manifestos in favor of letting the music speak for itself. There is certainly plenty of it to go around, that's for sure, culled from six strong studio albums released during the '80s.
Selecting a favorite Replacements album - for both fans of the band and admirers of fine rock music in general - is a process that can easily cause fingernails to be chewed and chins to be scratched vigorously. Still, I've always been partial to 1985's Tim, the final Replacements record to feature original guitarist Bob Stinson and also the one that may contain the greatest number of top-notch Westerberg compositions. The muscular, energetic rocker "Little Mascara" has always been a favorite of mine, a song that clearly betrays Westerberg's Big Star-inspired power pop obsession but also a track full of crackling guitar urgency. Lyrically, Westerberg notches yet another classic '80s quotable when he tells his subject, "All you ever wanted was someone to take care of ya, all you're ever losing is a little mascara." There are probably almost two dozen Replacements songs, in my humble opinion, that sprinkle in bits of near musical perfection alongside genuinely anguished, exhilaratingly messy meditations on the complex human condition. Today I focus on this one, but with any luck rock music lovers will soon be able to refer to the others as living artifacts bearing - for both better and worse - that elusive Hall of Fame stamp.
- Sample or download "Little Mascara" here.
- The Replacements Artist Profile
- Top '80s Songs of The Replacements
- Top '80s Long Shots for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Sire
I'm not even completely sure which '80s hard rock band I saw Vixen open up for about a quarter-century ago in the old Asheville Civic Center. Something tells me it was probably Poison, although there is an outside chance it was Tesla, a pairing that would have made significantly less sense. Some of that lack of recall may be attributable to my escalating age, while another portion of it could suggest that the concert wasn't all that memorable. Whatever the actual reality, one thing that was always most certainly notable about Vixen is that this was a pop-oriented hard rock band that had paid its dues and deserved to be viewed as a legitimate hard-working rock band. In the wake of the sad news that Vixen's founder and lead guitarist, Jan Kuehnemund, died of cancer last week at the far-too-young age of 51, I'm reminded immediately that the band often failed to receive due respect back in the day primarily because of the gender of its membership. That's a tough thing to admit even for rock music fans of the relatively backward late '80s, but it's probably an accurate statement. So in response to yet another tragically premature death of a prominent '80s music star (it's happening more and more every day, unfortunately), I'd like to take a moment to refocus on the positive aspects of Vixen's career that tend to be forgotten through the years by everyone but the group's most hard-core fans.
Minnesota native Kuehnemund started Vixen around 1980 as a local Twin Cities band while still in her teens. Although a relocation to Los Angeles didn't immediately pay huge dividends, the band labored within the club scene until about 1985, when its career truly began to take off. Lead singer Janet Gardner certainly had something to do with Vixen's success on the hair metal and glam metal scene of the late '80s, but Kuehnemund provided driving, nimble lead guitar work on top of her occasional songwriting contributions. Though not a well-known Vixen tune, the deep album track "Waiting" - from the group's 1988 self-titled debut - represents a perfectly competent, passionate pop metal companion to the best work of the period from arena rock forebears like Pat Benatar and Heart. Perhaps this is not the most groundbreaking rock music of the '80s, but it stands up far better than many of Vixen's male-dominated contemporaries that probably figured they held a given testosterone-based advantage. Don't get me wrong; Vixen was no Girlschool, but Kuehnemund & Co. were no mere big-haired posers. For these reasons - aside from the many more personal ones for those she knew and loved - Kuehnemund will be greatly missed by many '80s music fans with an egalitarian worldview on gender roles in rock.
- Sample or download "Waiting" here.
- Top Heart Songs of the '80s
- Top Poison Songs of the '80s
- Top Women of '80s Rock
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Razor & Tie
This standout track gleefully employs an utterly sparkling melodic hook even while it creates a joyfully organic, rootsy atmosphere punctuated by boogie piano and a stylistically well-rounded structure. In this way, it's complicated and simplistic at the same time, achieving a balance that has a high degree of difficulty even in the small corners of the music industry that contain the least amount of commercial pressure. Brown is a fine, underrated male country singer from an era full of bigger names, but his performance here of a particularly tight three-minute single stands firmly as one of the most memorable country songs of the decade. The confidently clever yet understated wordplay also represents the best elements of modern Nashville songcraft.
- Sample or download "I Tell It Like It Used to Be" here.
- Compare prices on T. Graham Brown CDs here.
- Top Kenny Rogers Solo Songs of the '80s
- Top Alabama Songs of the '80s
While on vacations over the seven years I've been lucky enough to oversee and write for this site, I've experienced more than a few '80s music inspirations that have led to memorable content. I just happened to have another of those this week when I caught a short but energetic show featuring the beloved '80s new wave band The Go-Go's at Disney's EPCOT resort. Fans of '80s music already know there are plenty of things to treasure about this band aside from its still sadly novel status as successful all-female rock ensemble. However, I found myself surprised to note that the admittedly charismatic joie de vivre of frontwoman Belinda Carlisle is probably only the third-best element of this band that emerged like a rocket more than three decades ago on the American new wave scene. Actually, I might place the potent, powerful drumming of Gina Schock at the top of the list. After all, her thunderous pounding greeted the enthusiastic audience at the show I attended and announced clearly that a flat-out rock and roll show was getting good and ready to happen. Not far behind, though, would certainly have to be the muscular two-guitar attack from guitarists (and primary songwriters for the band back in the day) Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey. That's not to say the still-lovely Carlisle was not in fine form both vocally and in her dancing-barefoot exuberance, but Wiedlin and Caffey can simply rock it out even when delivering delicate harmony vocals to round out the band's still-exhilarating sound.
This all got me to thinking that these two lesser-known ladies certainly never got the attention they deserved as major contributors to one of the most riveting flashpoint success stories of the early '80s. The glory didn't last for the band back then, and though Wiedlin tried dedicatedly to make her mark as a solo act - releasing three albums in a five-year span between 1985 and 1990 - pop radio did not seem to make room for any more than one former Go-Go. Wiedlin's somewhat girlish style may not work incredibly well in terms of lead vocals, but it would have been wise to allow her pure rock credibility to counteract the sugary production and pop-heavy arrangements that dominate those records. Nevertheless, "Blue Kiss" - one of the minor hit singles from her self-titled debut - demonstrates Wiedlin's gift for pop melody even if it unduly downplays her snarl as an edgy electric guitarist. Ultimately, it's a piece of satisfying '80s pop that didn't get fair treatment from radio at the time and certainly should be better-known both by members of the still-rabid league of Go-Go's fans as well as the general public roaming around Florida and elsewhere. As for the reunited Go-Go's, this is one particular nostalgia tour that offers far more than a vanilla swirl of just going through the motions. It's genuine, worthy rock and roll regardless of unnecessarily limiting considerations of gender.
- Sample or download "Blue Kiss" here.
- The Go-Go's Artist Profile
- Top '80s Songs of The Go-Go's
- Belinda Carlisle Artist Profile
Single Cover Image Courtesy of I.R.S. Records