XTC: Black Sea (1980)
When I do pull out the albums, I tend to go for the more ornate baroque-pop of later years, like the wonderful Oranges & Lemons from 1989. Still, if pressed to pick a favorite, I'd have to fall back on 1980's Black Sea, if largely for sentimental reasons.
Back in high school in the early 80s, while I did my best to keep as current with new music as cloistered suburbia would allow, I was mostly interested in getting my arms around as much classic rock history as I could. Yeah, I listened to the Clash and the Talking Heads and the Jam, but was still reveling in great albums from the Byrds and Neil Young that had come out back when I was too young to have heard them. Still, now and then a song would break through that got me interested in looking forward. "Generals and Majors" was one of those songs, something that from the opening seconds made me sit up and take me notice and got me wondering if there might be a whole world of new and emerging music just outside the mainstream that would render all those classic rock dinosaurs obsolete. (Note: there was.)
I still think there's nothing that sounds quite like "Generals and Majors," that distinctive hook so singularly stunning that I will never NOT drop everything to listen if this comes on the radio or shows up on one of my playlists.
The other one that made a lasting impression was album opener "Respectable Street." One of the most indelible moments of my youth was seeing Urgh! A Music War on late-night cable; it was a somewhat random collection of concert clips from various new wave acts, both popular (i.e. the Police, the Go-Go's) and obscure. And, once again, seeing XTC (shortly before they became a studio-only act) was one of those a-ha! moments when you just feel that the musical world is shifting. (I dedicated a bit of ink to Urgh! in my book; it was a big deal for me at the time.)
Those two songs may have been the world-changers for me, but the album is full of great music, songs that bridge the band's evolution from skewed, angular post-punk with catchy hooks to more ambitious, baroque pop music. "Love At First Sight" rocks a reggae beat far more effectively than most of what the Police were doing at the time; "Rocket From A Bottle" is understated yet hopelessly infectious; "Towers of London" is (almost) straightforward mid-tempo power pop; "Burning With Optimism's Flame" is another charming reggae-ish track with askew hooks. Admittedly, a few of the album's tracks lean towards the more jagged tendencies of their earlier work that I found a little disorienting and off-putting, but on the whole the album does a nice job of transporting me back to a time when I was feeling a sense of joyous discovery.
Here's the video for "Generals":