Ranking Pretenders albums

I’m a fan of Last of the Independents, whose “Night in My Veins” was a welcome shot of smut in 1994 and whose “I’ll Stand By You” has kept Chrissie Hynde solvent for two decades; and 1990’s Packed!, a Pretenders album in name only with “Let’s Make a Pact,” “When Will I See You,” and “Sense of Purpose,” outlining the limits (and depths) of adult relationships. When I was younger, Hynde taught me what a rock singer could do. 

1. Pretenders (1980)

I shot my mouth off and he showed me what that hole was for.

Blackmailed emotions confuse the demon and devotee.

Where’s my sandy beach? ”

“Did she really sing that?” I asked often when playing the debut in my teens. And the chord changes matched the tonal and syllabic shifts: artists spend their careers avoiding the abruptness of what Chrissie Hynde and guitarist James Honeyman-Scott include at the 0:55 mark in “The Phone Call.” Last week, I expounded on the strangeness of being the woman delineated by Liz Phair over and over in her early songs and having men swoon over this character until she writes about other women, upon which these men cry betrayal. As far as I know, Hynde didn’t suffer this problem because she dressed butch, cursed and smoked and drank openly, and — here’s the key — slathered that inimitable sob over winsome moments like “Kid,” “Brass in Pocket,” and “Stop Your Sobbing.” Because she was open to making herself open without being played for a sucker (for a while at any rate), she sustained a career. However, if all the Pretender released was this debut, still among my top ten records released by anyone, she’d still reward my attention. Melodies to savor, a continual sense of how-does-she-do-that with polysyllables, the lurching rhythms of Martin Chambers and Pete Farndon — this was a band.

2. Learning to Crawl (1984)

We critics cite Prince, Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, and Lionel Richie as 1984’s chart champions, but the consonance between MTV and the top forty buoyed several careers, including the Pretenders, who recovered after the deaths of Farndon and Honeyman-Scott with one of the angriest and most concentrated of comeback albums, conscious of time the avenger even at his most banal, which includes watching your clothes in a spin cycle. And the public responded: the highest charting album of their career, instant platinum, four hits if you count holiday perennial “2000 Miles” and the 1983 single “Back on the Chain Gang,” maybe five if you count how Rush Limbaugh later turned “My City Was Gone” into a blowhard’s lament. I can’t imagine what it was like to hear “Middle of the Road” drop into a radio playlist, especially that chord change. Beatwise and fixed on momentum, Learning to Crawl doesn’t shirk from sentimentality; Hynde wouldn’t have embraced a banality like “Show me the meaning of the word” in 1979 so much as buried it in Honeyman-Scott and Farndon’s lead and rhythm riffs, respectively. Credit to producer Chris Thomas for remembering he’s a pro.

3. Extended Play (1981)

The shimmering “Talk of the Town” gives me an idea of the first and best Pretenders lineup would’ve done with “Don’t Get Me Wrong” five years later. “Message of Love” would’ve worked even more splendidly as an instrumental: Hynde and Honeyman-Scott’s guitars honking at each other. Add an innocuous Bo Diddley homage, a very good outtake called “Cuban Slide” and a fabulous live version of “Precious,” and it results in an EP that as usual doesn’t get the attention of a full-length.

4. Get Close (1986)

“Certain recordings issued in the 1985-1986 era necessitated the writing of the New Jersey Rule, two years before the release of the album that coined the phenomenon,” I wrote a few months ago. Consider: Tina Turner’s Break Every Rule, Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors, Huey Lewis and the News’ Fore! Each of these deluxe high-profile releases followed a surprise multi-platinum phenomenon that well into 1986 sold in the millions…Yet every one disappointed commercially or, in the case of Fore!, which produced more hits than 1983’s Sports, left a sour taste.” Look at the engineering and production credits of Get Close. Keyboards and horns squeeze into every available space. Hynde gets herself in a lather with an anti-commercialization anthem called “How Much Did You Get For Your Soul” that has clavinet and Casio synth stabs. But “My Baby” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong” boasts Hynde at her mellifluous best, she sings a pop blues power ballad  (it should’ve been the hit that a certain song I already mentioned was), and “Hymn to Her” is Hynde at her warmest and queerest.

5. Viva El Amor! (1999)

No one cared in 1999, and “Human” sounds like the theme to a WB series, but this end of millennium album boasted tropes that no one but Hynde could’ve come up. A woman in her forties writing a wistful closing ballad about a biker? Writing a song called “Legalise Me”? The chord changes are gone but her voice still rasps; between surliness and submission there lies a lifetime.

6. Pretenders II (1981)

I caution students against telling and instead of showing, and “The Adultress” does the former. Several songs are loud and smutty but go nowhere (“Bad Boys Get Spanked,” “The English Roses”). “Message of Love” and “Talk of the Town” appeared on Extended Play, so stop cheating, Chrissie! “Day After Day” is one of the few songs that rings and chimes on its own. One of those albums that sounds fabulous but after several plays you can’t remember a thing.

5 thoughts on “Ranking Pretenders albums

  1. I always pretend “Dont’ Get me Wrong” it’s her solo hit. Well, in a way, it is. I am too enamoured of pop 1986 not to mention it. And the best use of this song it’s in “Peter’s Friends”, not counting the amazing (and very, very British) video. One of my highlights of that year.

    PS: Some critics have called it “R&B-lite” and miss the guitarist and drummer of the band. Perhaps if “Get Close” were under Chrissie’s name and not Pretenders could have helped to appreciate its charms?

  2. It would’ve sounded even more stymied. Lots of singers went solo in the mid to late eighties with albums this bombastic: purported declarations of independence.

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