Sunday, July 25, 2010

April 17, 2009: Psychobabble’s Fourteen Greatest Albums of 1979

1979 was a transitional year for music, and not just because it marked the end of a decade. Punk had been raging for the past few years, but the genre was already on the (temporary) decline and many of the original punks that refused to evolve were facing the end of their shelf lives. Meanwhile, a number of the biggest classic rockers of the sixties and seventies were either reaching the ends of their careers or, at least, bidding their most creative periods farewell. New wave was burgeoning, power pop was on the rise, and the eighties were just a few day-glo months away. The final year of the ‘seventies was a great one for music, and here are fourteen of the best releases of 79.

14. In Through the Out Door by Led Zeppelin

Following the all electric guitar onslaught of Presence, In Through the Out Door found Led Zeppelin reemerging as a completely different band. Due to Jimmy Page’s heroin problems and John Bonham’s alcoholism, John Paul Jones and Robert Plant had to pick up the slack. As a result, this is the most keyboard-heavy Zeppelin album, and it suggests that the group may have made the transition into the eighties relatively smoothly. Jones co-wrote all but one of the tracks (the electrified ho-down “Hot Dog”, which is fun but doesn’t belong on this record), and he brings a nice variety of sounds to the studio floor: the sexy synths of “In the Evening”, the pumping barrelhouse piano of “South Bound Suarez”, the Latin flavor of “Fool in the Rain”, and the burbling synth flourishes of “Carouselambra”, a murky, swirling, ten minute and thirty-two second puzzle that hints at what a Led Zep disco record might have sounded like. “All My Love”, a ballad written for Plant’s recently deceased son Karac, is equal parts cheese and heartfelt sadness, and “I’m Gonna Crawl” is an effective Otis Redding pastiche that erupts into primal screams at its climax. With most songs eschewing the sword and sorcery bullshit of previous Zeppelin records, In Through the Outdoor stands as relatively personal. It is also their final one, as John Bonham’s death in 1980 ended the group for better or worse.

13. Look Sharp! by Joe Jackson 

Joe Jackson started his career barking from the throat about sexual and social politics over jagged backing that was too clean for punk and too nasty and organic for new wave. So did Elvis Costello, and for pretty good reason, Jackson has sometimes been dismissed as a mere Costello clone. The question is: is that a bad thing? As far as Costello clones go, Jackson is an expert. “Happy Loving Couples” and Fools in Love are outtakes from My Aim Is True in everything but copyright. By hiring Graham Maby, he even copied Costello’s great taste in bass players! Joe Jackson also proves a formidable songwriter in his own right, tapping into the bitter Elvis insight to lash out against the inequity and deceptiveness of romance, winning himself a signature song (“Is She Really Going Out with Him”) in the process. He also points his sights at contemporary society beyond relationships, spitting at the media (“Sunday Papers”) and fashion (the title track). Jackson would assert his originality a bit more on his superior second album, but for sheer bite, thrust, and unadulterated Costelloizing, he never bested Look Sharp!  

12. Candy-O by The Cars

The Car’s first album was practically a greatest hits album, but like a lot of debuts, it found the band working out some kinks. The awkward progressiveness of “All Mixed Up” was the wrong way to end such a delectable assortment of pop-new wave smashes. There's nothing like that on the perfect Candy-O, and even the weirder tracks—robotic tracks such as the title number and “Night Spots”, the Suicide-influenced “Shoo Ba Doo”—fit the mood and enhance the collection with tart contrasts to the unapologetic sweetness of the hits “Let’s Go” and “It’s All I Can Do”. “Dangerous Type”, “Got a Lot on My Head”, and “Double Life” find The Cars dipping their boots into slightly darker ponds without getting their innate pop sensibilities all wet. The Cars felt like an amazing selection of singles tacked together. With its eclectic moods assuredly executed and refusal to rely on big hits, Candy-O feels like a great album. 
11. Fear of Music by Talking Heads

Transitional albums tend to be awkward but necessary markers in a band’s development. Fear of Music is a fascinating exception: a transitional record that sounds more assured than anything else in the band’s discography. Talking Heads had made two rhythmically and intellectually complex new wave records, making the very best of the limitations of their four-piece on 77 and More Songs About Buildings and Food. Taking the next logical step for a clearly ambitious band, they started expanding that line up on their third album, inviting guest stars to assist on the African-influenced “I Zimbra”, “Air”, and “Life During Wartime”, a timely take down of late-seventies superficiality sung from the perspective of an American revolutionary that became an unlikely dance-floor classic. However, Talking Heads had yet to allow themselves to become overwhelmed by outside musicians, so Fear of Music has more density than 77 or More Songs and more breathing space than Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues. It is the ideal balance between both eras, and songs such as “Life During Wartime”, “Mind”, “Cities”, “Heaven”, and “Air” are among the best Talking Heads would ever do.

10. Regatta de Blanc- The Police

Some have dismissed Regatta de Blanc as a typical sophomore slump (All Music Guide
gives the record a mere three stars) with its over-reliance on awkward Stewart Copeland songs, but those goofy tunes are a large part of why I think it’s such a fantastic album. Copeland’s “Contact”, “Does Everyone Stare”, and “On Any Other Day” are three of the funniest, weirdest, most unique songs the Police recorded. Stew’s vocal on “Does Everyone Stare” is charming in its tunelessness and perfectly conveys the pre-“Every Breath You Take” obsession of the lyrics. Otherwise, the Police deliver much of what their fans most adored with the tight, tough pop of “Message in a Bottle”, the psychedelic reggae of “Walking on the Moon”, the rhythmically relentless “No Time This Time”, and the smoldering “Bring on the Night”. All the while the band continues to hold their own as the most intricately taut power trio of the late ‘70s. Regatta de Blanc may not be the punky masterwork that Outlandos d’Amour had been, but it is a great document of the Police right before they became megastars with Zenyatta Mondatta, after which they would rarely tread into such fabulously goofy territory again.

9. Damn the Torpedoes- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Odd as it may now seem, there was a time when Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were considered part of the new wave. I recall seeing the videos for “Refugee” and “Don’t Do Me Like That” on MTV when I was a kid, and as far I was concerned, they were as fresh as anything by the Clash or Talking Heads. Still, the prevailing influence of Damn the Torpedoes is Byrds jangle pop and early Stones garage rock, and the Heartbreakers deliver these exciting tracks with energy and thrust. As a result, Damn the Torpedoes sounds way more Rock & Roll than new wave today, which is just fine by me, especially when addictive numbers like “Even the Losers”, “Shadow of a Doubt (Complex Kid)”, and “Century City” are being delivered furiously one after the other. The fact that Petty and the band were able to make such effervescent music while entangled in legal battles with a corrupt record industry makes Damn the Torpedoes all the more remarkable. 

8. I’m the Man- Joe Jackson

Popular consensus is that Joe Jackson’s debut is his greatest album. No question that Look Sharp! is a classic of punk energy and pop songwriting savvy, but I personally prefer his second record. In some ways I’m the Man is more of the same, yet I think it’s a more consistently memorable record than Jackson’s debut released earlier the same year. “On the Radio” gets things off to a stormy start, and it’s just great song to great song until the fiery “Friday” concludes. The band sounds pilled up and hungry throughout; Graham Maby whipping up some of the most exhilarating bass lines on wax. Whether Jackson is dabbling in creepy crawly reggae (the spine-tingling “Geraldine and John”), perky pop (“Kinda Kute”), tart ballads (“It’s Different for Girls”; “Amateur Hour”), or revved up pop-punk (“Don’t Wanna Be Like That”; the jaw-dropping title track), the band keeps things coherent with riveting, flawless performances. Jackson sneers over the din with snotty irascibility. His lyrics are little daggers of social commentary and sexual politics, perhaps not as lacerating as those of Elvis Costello, but sharp enough to keep listeners watching their backs.

7. Drums and Wires- XTC

XTC’s first two albums were pretty good, new wavey records that had energy and attitude in spades but didn’t deliver great songs with any consistency. Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding more than got their shit together for their third album. While Drums and Wires lacks the ferocity of White Music and Go 2, it overflows with incredible songs that might have been big pop hits had they been played by a less neurotic-sounding group and if the lyrics weren’t so bizarre. Moulding—the Harrison to Partridge’s Lennon and McCartney—delivers the record’s most outright catchy numbers, including the evergreen “Making Plans for Nigel” (a top twenty hit in the UK) and “Ten Feet Tall”, a woozy love song that really deserved a place on popular radio. Of course, Partridge dominates, and his numbers are sweaty, delirious, and often quite dancey (“Helicopter” and “When You’re Near Me I Have Difficulty” in particular). The closing track, “Complicated Game”, is the culmination of the underlying anxiety running through even the poppiest numbers on Drums and Wires, and it is a harrowing piece of music. Drums and Wires kicked off a classic series of albums for XTC that lasted throughout the ‘80s, some of which equaled its quality (especially Black Sea, English Settlement, and Skylarking) but none greatly surpassing it.

6. The Undertones- The Undertones

If the Undertones were nothing more than one (underground) hit wonders who wrote and recorded “Teenage Kicks”—the song with the impressive distinction of being John Peel’s favorite ever— they’d be among the greats. However, every song on their debut is a jolt of pop-punk euphoria from the days when pop-punk meant the Buzzcocks and not Blink 182. More teen-angst than you can squeeze a bottle of Clearasil at, The Undertones is track after track of jittery rhythms, snappy melodies, and Feargal Sharkey’s shaky vocals. Each song is a total winner, many of them delving into dicey subject matter like incest (“Family Entertainment”), suicide (“Jimmy, Jimmy”), and jerking off (“Teenage Kicks”, the chorus of which was originally “I want to hold it tight, get teenage kicks right through the night”), but never once failing to deliver a mega-hooky chorus. In 1978, John Peel announced that he wanted the line “Teenage dreams, so hard to beat” from “Teenage Kicks” engraved on his headstone when he dies. In 2008, he got his wish. If there’s anything more punk rock than having a quote from a song about beating the meat engraved on ones headstone, I’ve yet to hear it.

5. Tusk- Fleetwood Mac

Rumours was a commercial monster, moving more than 30 million copies to date and supplying American radio with four top ten hit singles. Naturally, the world couldn’t wait to find out what Fleetwood Mac would deliver next. After the sometimes sunny, sometimes sour pop confections of Rumours, many fans didn’t know quite what to do with Tusk a sprawling double-album’s worth of paranoia, coke-fueled experimentation, chanting, and marching bands. Tusk is generally remembered as the flop follow-up to Rumours (even though it went double-platinum… not too shabby), but it’s way more than that. Rumours is a good record (dragged down by some dross from the pen of Christine McVie), but “Go Your Own Way”, “The Chain”, and “Gold Dust Woman” are its only fairly adventurous numbers. On Tusk, Lindsay Buckingham really cuts loose, possibly liberated by the realization his band would never match the success of its previous album. Jerky tracks like “The Ledge”, “What Makes You Think You’re the One”, “Not That Funny”, and “That’s Enough For Me” are alternately beautiful and disorienting. The title track, with its sinister chanting and brass fanfares, is the single weirdest hit single ever released by a commercial pop band. “That’s All for Everyone” is a ravishing homage to Buckingham’s idol, Brian Wilson. Elsewhere are some gripping slow-burners from Stevie Nicks (“Sara”, “Sisters of the Moon”, “Storms”). Christine McVie supplies one clunker (“Honey Hi”), but the rest of her tracks are pleasing enough, and in the case of “Brown Eyes”, she delivers an ominous work worthy of Nicks. Still Tusk is Lindsay Buckingham’s show, and he makes it a fascinatingly deranged experience.

4. Cast of Thousands - The Adverts

Time is very kind to some albums that were initially misunderstood. Cast of Thousands, the record that essentially destroyed The Adverts, is one of these. Released at the tail end of punk’s first wave, fans and critics were baffled by T.V. Smith and the gang’s decision to furnish their raw and rough rockers with acoustic guitars, various keyboards, bells, and— weirdest of all—a full choir. Such accoutrements were highly unacceptable to blinkered listeners more concerned with the most restrictive Punk ethos than the kind of unfettered self-expression that set the best bands aside from the most disposable. The rejection of Cast of Thousands meant The Adverts’ sophomore album was their last, which is near tragic considering what a tremendous record it is. The title song, which contains the choir that so appalled former fans, is a magnificent piece of music; as fierce and wild as The Advert’s earlier singles, but epic and majestic as the greatest pop anthems. With T.V. Smith’s feral screams on the outro vamp, “Cast of Thousands” is Punk’s “Hey Jude” and every bit as thrilling as The Beatles’ classic. “The Adverts” is a humorous bit of propaganda (“Pretty soon you’ll be… living like the Adverts. Things could be worse”) set to a driving rhythm augmented by glittering piano runs. The acoustic “My Place” is a beautiful melding of folk-rock and Punk-rock, and “Television’s Over” manages to be brutal even as it’s invaded by a carnivalesque organ and the return of that controversial choir. “I Will Walk You Home” is a dark, dramatic dirge with moody mandolins. Alas, all of this glorious music was tentatively tasted and puked out by Punks in the late seventies, but hearing it today reveals a true lost classic.

3. Armed Forces- Elvis Costello and the Attractions

Prior to Armed Forces Elvis Costello and the Attractions were often ranked amongst the punks, which isn’t too tough to fathom considering the amphetamine-induced garage rock clangor of This Year’s Model. No one was going to mistake Armed Forces for anything but pop, though. Apparently, Elvis was suffering from a bit of an ABBA fixation when his band recorded this album, and the clean sheen of those Swedish hit makers is apparent in the sparkling production, professional performances, hooky melodies, and stately pianos of Armed Forces. While the manic playing of This Year’s Model is definitely missed, Elvis’s rapidly maturing songwriting remains razor sharp. Sexual and global politics mix and mingle throughout exceptional songs like the singles “Oliver’s Army” and “Accidents Will Happen”, the Abbey Road influenced “Party Girl”, the highly underrated and nervy “Busy Bodies”, and the churning “Two Little Hitlers”. A couple of the songs are sub-par (“Chemistry Class” is generic; “Sunday’s Best” is irritating), but this is still one of Elvis and the Attractions’ best records, and that’s no small thing.

2. London Calling– The Clash

As I said above, 1979 was the year the original punks had to prove there was more to them than three chords and light speed tempos. The Ramones were one of the few groups to basically survive the decade with their original sound intact (albeit after a brief dalliance with Phil Spector), while the rest disintegrated or evolved. One of the most shocking evolutions was that of the Clash. Their first two albums were blitzkriegs, but there was evidence of other ambitions in reggae-influenced numbers like “Police & Thieves” and more traditional Rock & Rollers like “Stay Free”. Still the level of diversity—and the complete lack of straight punk numbers—made London Calling seem completely unlike anything the Clash had done before it. This is the “White Album” of the new wave. There are bits of soul, jazz, pop, ska, reggae, and Stonesy classic rock scattered throughout these two discs. The Clash also pull the most un-punk trick of embellishing their arrangements with horns and keyboards. What connects London Calling to the Clash of old are the unmistakable voices of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, and an emphasis on politics. The title track is an apocalyptic vision of a rotting England, and it’s quite appropriate that the bass riff is a direct rip of the trombone line in the Kinks’ similarly themed “Dead End Street”. Paul Simonon’s brooding “Guns of Brixton” takes a swing at an oppressive police force, and the sublime “Clampdown” places fascism and capitalism in its crosshairs. Fortunately, it’s not all dour politics: “Rudie Can’t Fail”, “Hateful”, “The Right Profile”, “Wrong ‘Em Boyo”, and “Train in Vain” are all great fun. More entertaining and informative than all the news magazines in a corner shop.

1. Machine Gun Etiquette- The Damned

Machine Gun Etiquette is not as socially conscious as London Calling. It’s not as sophisticated as Armed Forces or as rule-defying as Tusk. It’s just the greatest fucking punk album ever made. The Damned were one of the very first punk groups, but they never garnered the respect that the Clash, the Sex Pistols, or the Ramones (who were even goofier than the Damned) did. ‘Tis a pity for the snobs who dismissed the Damned, because the band was and is amazing, loaded with incomparable energy, humor, and fun-loving anarchy. Rat Scabies was a perfect successor to the Wild Man Drummer throne of Keith Moon. Captain Sensible was a provocative leader who never took anything seriously… except for when he did. Dave Vanian was that ultra-rare Goth who wasn’t above laughing at himself, and he made the most of his limited voice by developing what has often been described as a “dark croon.” Machine Gun Etiquette is the masterpiece of the Damned’s punk era, although like London Calling, it is a transitional album. While the Clash were embracing soul and reggae, the Damned were dabbling with ‘60s style American garage rock and psychedelia. Yet they never abandoned punk as outright as the Clash did, and the hilarious parody “Love Song” (which delivered such romantic sentiments as “You’ll be the rubbish, I’ll be the bin”!), the comic book homage “Melody Lee”, the thrilling down-with-religion screed “Anti Pope”, a breathless version of the MC5’s “Looking at You”, “Noise, Noise, Noise”, and “Liar” are as speedy and demented as anything on the group’s great debut record. Of course, nothing on Damned Damned Damned would have included the trippy percussion breakdown that invades “Anti Pope” or the lovely piano figure that begins “Melody Lee”. The Damned drive further off the punk rails on the hysterically horrific “These Hands” (“These are the hands of a demented circus clown”…), the Gothic dirge “Plan 9, Channel 7” (which rhapsodizes over the rumored relationship between James Dean and Vampira), and the incomparably magnificent “Smash It Up”, which is far poppier than its riotous title suggests. Machine Gun Etiquette is punk played with skill, inventiveness, wit, and imagination…all the things that critics claim the genre lacks. This record would shut those assholes up for good if they took the time to hear it.

Seven more great records from 1979:
AC/DC- Highway to Hell
David Bowie- Lodger
The Cure- Three Imaginary Boys
The Jam- Setting Sons
Nick Lowe- Labour of Lust
Pink Floyd- The Wall
Wings- Back to the Egg
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