Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 16, 2010: Psychobabble’s Sixteen Greatest Albums of 1980

If the ‘80s—a period defined by how image trumped content and sterile digital technology shaved away all organic rough edges—was the most artistically meager decade since the dawn of Rock & Roll twenty five years earlier, there was little to indicate this would be the case to anyone who dug deeper than the Top Forty in 1980. Punk was on its way out, but its seismic waves were still shuddering across the landscape. The genre’s major figures were expanding into more adventurous realms, often with incredible success (creatively, if not commercially). MTV had yet to intrude on the scene. New Wave and Power Pop made 3-minute, guitar-based seven inches a viable force again—with “Call Me”, Blondie even scored the biggest smash in a year when the charts were dominated by Olivia Newton John, Kenny Rogers, and Christopher Cross. Of course, one had to keep an eye on the underground to find the year’s best music, a situation that would basically remain permanent in pop music. Here are Psychobabble’s sixteen favorite long players released in 1980…

 16. The Game by Queen

  Throughout the seventies, Queen were the kings of outrageous bombast. They took the ridiculousness of heavy metal that always writhed under the surface of Led Zeppelin’s records and set it free with songs of operatic nonsense, bicycles, and big butts. They were Spinal Tap if David St. Hubbins had a sense of humor and Nigel Tufnel had a brain. Queen’s wit was still intact in the new decade, but their bombast and sheer absurdity had evaporated a bit. That may have disappointed some original fans, but it probably also won Queen some new ones, at least in America where they had their greatest success yet with The Game. It was their first album to occupy Billboard’s number one spot. It’s two singles, the charming Elvis pastiche “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and the magnetically funky “Another One Bites the Dust”, also went to the top and both feature outstanding bass work from John Deacon, who wrote the latter smash. On “Crazy Little Thing”, writer Freddie Mercury gives one of his most restrained performances, and he sings just as marvelously when he’s pushing into a Presley baritone as when he’s going for the top on the classic Queen anthem “Save Me” or the sensitive and lovely title track. On “Don’t Try Suicide”, he shows he can still slash through the envelope of good taste with an absolutely uproarious satire of brain-dead message songs (I’m sure Big Fun were listening!). Queen’s music had matured, but they could still get as goofy as a bunch of teenage doofuses, and who’d want them any other way?

 15. Kings of the Wild Frontier by Adam & The Ants

Between making super-abrasive, Banshees-esque noise while playing a superficial punk pretty boy in Jubilee and becoming an actual superficial new-wave pretty boy with 1982’s Friend or Foe, Adam Ant hit the perfect balance between those two leanings with Kings of the Wild Frontier. A lot of the lyrics are gloriously silly stuff about dancing ants and pirates, but there are also more pointedly satirical pieces about critical flavors of the moment, being a victim of your own emotions, and all stripes of paranoia. But let’s be honest: no one listens to Adam & The Ants for their lyrics. No worries, mate, because Kings is rich in royal melodies, glammy guitar lines, and dance-inducing Burundi beats. “Feed Me to the Lions”, “The Magnificent Five”, “Dog Eat Dog”, and “Press Darlings” are all infectious anthems, unabashed even when crying utter nonsense. Their sweetness finds complex balance in the discordance of “Ants Invasion”, the brooding of “Killer in the House”, and the brooding discordance of “Physical (You’re So)”. And “Antmusic” gets my vote for the single greatest single of the eighties. You can stick that in your hussar jacket and smoke it.

14. Remain in Light by Talking Heads

Talking Heads got lumped in with the punks because they were weird and played at CBGB, but their angular, intellectual artiness always set them far apart from, say, The Voidoids or The Ramones. By the end of the seventies, most of the original punks—The Clash, The Damned, John Lydon— had moved on to more expansive worlds. Not surprisingly, the most radical record of the new decade by a band originally labeled “punk” came via Talking Heads. The African rhythms that bubbled beneath earlier songs like “Tentative Decisions” and “I Zimbra” were not only allowed to fully flourish on Remain in Light, but the core band was also joined by a dense ensemble of percussionists, backup singers, and horn players, while producer Brian Eno layered on some icy synths and guest-guitarist Adrian Belew discharged avant garde screeches and bleeps. The album is split between a quartet of caffeinated, neurotic grooves and a moody run of low-key dirges. Those first four tracks—“Born Under Punches (And the Heat Goes On)”, “Crosseyed and Painless”, “The Great Curve”, and the band’s signature song, “Once in a Lifetime”—may constitute the finest sequence on any Talking Heads record, even if the relatively indistinct concluding numbers keep Remain in Light from besting More Songs About Buildings and Food as the band’s greatest record.

13. Boy by U2

Given how heedlessly they’d soon succumb to ham-handed arena bombast, it’s a little startling and a little sad that U2’s first album is so raw and fresh. They owed too much to seventies-era Who to qualify as a punk band, but Boy is as close as U2 ever got to it, even though The Edge’s super-delayed guitar swathes it all in a very New Wavey sheen. “I Will Follow”, “Out of Control”, and “Stories for Boys” are as furious as U2 got; “Twilight”, “The Ocean”, and “An Cat Dubh” as spookily atmospheric. Only a dope would argue that U2’s first album was their only great one, but it captures them during a brief moment in their career when the world wasn’t scrutinizing their every move, and as a result, Boy is the band’s least self-conscious and most fun record. And is it just me or is the twinkling, lurching, flop single “A Day Without Me” the most perfect thing they’ve ever record?

12. And Don’t the Kids Just Love It by Television Personalities

Anyone who heard And Don’t the Kids Just Love It when it was released could not predict that the new decade would be defined by over-glossy production and fancy haircuts. Lo-fi to the core, Television Personalities’ debut L.P. is a cavalcade of shambling playing and off-key cockney vocalizing. It’s also utterly charming. Sporting a cover that unites sixities icons Twiggy and John Steed and a coo-coo pastoral called “I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives”, Television Personalities make their intentions very clear. Moon-eyed worshippers of mod and psych rock with a cheap 4-Track, they pay tribute to The Who on fiery stuff like “This Angry Silence” and “Look Back in Anger” or space off into Floydian dreamland on “A Family Affair” or conjure spaghetti-western psych worthy of Love on “Diary of a Young Man” or stomp-out an Aftermath-era Stones tribute called “Silly Girl” or the Ray Davies-esque character studies “World of Pauline Lewis” and “Geoffrey Ingram”. Yet as clearly indebted to their influences as Television Personalities are, they sound unlike any other group because their uniquely rough-hewn approach and the homemade quality of the recording lends an evocative eeriness to it all.

11. Sound Affects by The Jam

The movement’s roots may have been planted fifteen years earlier by The Beatles and The Kinks, but Brit Pop’s true ground zero is Sound Affects. With their fifth album, The Jam fully shed their previous reliance on punk’s speed and lack of adornment. Paul Weller’s songs are more crafted than vomited forth; the arrangements more varied and subtle. “Monday” sparkles with baroque keyboard flourishes. Folky acoustic guitars drive “That’s Entertainment!” Brass fanfares explode at the conclusion of “Start!” “Monday” and “Man in the Corner Shop”, which both pick up on Ray Davies’s fascination with dreary Englishness, are as lovely and sad as anything Paul Weller wrote, but this is no laid-back affair. “But I’m Different Now”, the churning “Set the House Ablaze”, and “Boy About Time” can hardly be confused with punk, yet they all bounce with as much energy as The Jam’s early records. Even the acoustic “That’s Entertainment!” is muscular and mean. “Start!” may be one of Rock’s most egregious rip-offs, yet it’s still pretty impossible to dislike, and on a thematic level, it pays all due respect to Brit Pop’s past while forging its future simultaneously. For fans of Revolver and Parklife alike.

10. Zenyatta Mondatta by The Police

After a debut album intended to establish them among the punks (it didn’t work) and a quirky sophomore effort, The Police fully found themselves on their third album. Slick and flawlessly professional, Zenyatta Mondatta was not as primal as the band’s first two albums, but it hung together as a consistent work better. Getting the big hit pop single out of the way with its first track, the splendid Nabokovian story-song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”, Zenyatta Mondatta then gets on with its essential agenda: white reggae with spacey guitar spiraling out over a rhythm section crisper than an Arctic morn. Although Sting’s other lyrics never quite equal the wit of “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”—“De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” being particularly mind-numbing despite its greatest-hit status—, it is interesting to hear him reach into new directions, strewing political subjects (“Driven to Tears”, “Bombs Away”), road laments (“Man in a Suitcase”), and character pieces (“When the World is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around”, “Shadows in the Rain”) among his usual love songs. The band would stretch out further on their next two albums, making Zenyatta Mondatta something of a stepping stone. As such, it’s still a great record. The Police could do no less. 

9. Kaleidoscope by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Beginning their career with an infamous gig that consisted of an endless, ramshackle rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”, Siouxsie and the Banshees seemed born to make off-putting music. Their debut album kept that notion alive with a spooky, crazed selection of noise. That format hit a dead end with their second album, which was so bereft of ideas that it actually included a studio attempt to recreate that rambling version of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Siouxsie and the Banshees desperately needed to take a fresh approach to their music, and they did so by embracing the poppier inclinations of singles such as “Hong Kong Garden” and trading in metallic guitars for icy synthesizers. No one would mistake the resulting album for Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits, but Kaleidoscope was certainly the most musical Banshees album yet, even as the band didn’t sacrifice an iota of their eeriness or edginess. Certainly losing guitarist John McKay and drummer Kenny Morris and welcoming in the far more subtle and artful players John McGeoch and Budgie had a lot to do with the refinement, but so did the maturing songwriting of Siouxsie and Steve Severin. “Christine” and “Happy House” were catchy singles, though the former is about mental illness and the latter is about the violence lurking behind the suburban ideal. “Desert Kisses” found the band developing the sweeping, darkly romantic sound that would dominate their mid-eighties records, while the punk spirit was definitely still present in relatively discordant pieces such as “Trophy”, “Hybrid”, and the dizzying and horrifying “Skin”, an ahead-of-its-time indictment of fur wearers. The Scream sounded like the work of a band that was ready to implode at any minute, and that band did. Kaleidoscope is the sound of a band reborn and showing that they’ve figured out how to stick around.

8. Los Angeles by X

Just as Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols was the definitive London punk album and The Ramones defined NYC punk, Los Angeles was the crucial album of the burgeoning LA punk scene. Almost journalistic in the way it chronicles the smack fiends, racists, girlfriend-beaters, and decadent richies prowling Hollywood boulevard, Los Angeles is coyote mean and junkie lean. That X hijacked Ray Manzarek to produce and add the odd keyboard and covered “Soul Kitchen” indicates that they intended to present themselves as the next step in a sort of LA lineage that began with The Doors. Yet this music is so much more vital, real, and on-the-edge than Jim Morrison’s gang ever was. Billy Zoom whips out high-speed Chuck Berry riffs as John Doe and Exene’s voices careen around each other like a pair of hot rods dragging down the Sunset Strip, never quite meeting close enough to qualify as harmonies. At well under a half hour, Los Angeles blitzes by at equal velocity, leaving the listener panting, perspiring, and psyched to spin it again and again.

7. Underwater Moonlight by The Soft Boys

Violent surrealism and gorgeous power pop consummate their forbidden relationship on The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight . Robyn Hitchcock marries his grotesque imagery—bones being picked upon, insects of love hatching under skin, old perverts under bridges, horrible ages of abuse and decay—with jangling guitars and sunny harmonies making it all sound like some sort of collaboration between Hieronymus Bosch and The Byrds. Each track is a power-pop masterpiece, from the Swiftian anti-war screed “I Wanna Destroy You” to the hyped-up, sitar-imbued “Positive Vibrations” to the lewd come ons “I Got the Hots” and “Old Pervert”. But the twin masterpieces of Underwater Moonlight are saved for the end: “Queen of Eyes” is a gloriously surreal neo-psychedelic jewel and the title track tells a nightmarish tale of a pair of statues who escape a rotten world to seek refuge under the sea, only to find it worse than their former pedestals. A symphony of cynicism. 

  6. Freedom of Choice by Devo

After a musically and lyrically provocative debut and a somewhat slumpy sophomore album, Devo tightened up their geeky new wave into a dozen totally focused potential singles. The freaky yet outrageously catchy “Whip It” managed to score them an actual hit, becoming one of the weirdest things to invade Billboard’s top twenty in 1980, but the bouncing rhythms, funky synths, fuzzy riffs, and attitude-spitting vocals of  “Girl U Want”, “Gates of Steel”, “Cold War”, “Mr. B’s Ballroom”, and “That’s Pep!” would have sounded just as radical and refreshing coming out of radios. And at the dawn of a decade when the prevailing ethos were superficiality, conformity, and nationalism, Devo arrived with a genuine point of view challenging such things with lyrics as easily digestible and palatable as a bowl of Froot Loops. The positiveness of songs such as “Whip It”, “Gates of Steel”, “Planet Earth”, and “That’s Pep” also made Devo’s visions of what the world and the human race could be contrasts the often defeated and dejected stance of topical songs, making Freedom of Choice both musically and philosophically uplifting. Only in the eighties could five guys with flowerpots on their heads be their generation’s voices of reason.

5. Black Sea by XTC

A year after releasing their first great album, 1979’s Drums and Wires, XTC made an even better one with Black Sea. This isn’t a concept album, but it is a singular piece in which all of the parts contribute immeasurably to the whole. XTC’s social commentaries (“Respectable Street”, another of this list’s many Ray Davies homages), anti-war protests (“Generals and Majors”, “Living Through Another Cuba”), love songs (“Love at First Sight”, “Burning with Optimism’s Flame”), and odes to inarticulateness (“No Language in Our Lungs”) have little to do with each other, except for when all these themes convene on “Sgt. Rock (Is Going to Help Me)”. The unity of Black Sea has more to do with the band and the recording. The sound is consistently thick, Andy Patridge and Colin Moulding’s songs are uniformly excellent, and their singing and playing astoundingly confident. The variety of Black Sea is also tremendous, with tribal rhythms in as much abundance as British Invasion melodiousness, psychedelic nuances, and post-punk noise. Black Sea doesn’t house anything as well known as “Making Plans for Nigel” or “Senses Working Overtime” or “Dear God”, but it may very well be XTC’s masterpiece.

4. Pretenders by The Pretenders

Part of me laments the failure of Malcolm McLaren’s super group Masters of the Backside, but the two consolation prizes we got instead—The Damned and The Pretenders—are pretty amazing. Akron-ex patriot Chrissie Hynde had already established herself as a top Rock journalist, the paramour of one of the genre’s most revered legends (Ray Davies), and a fixture of the London punk crowd. Yet none of this indicated she’d turn out to be a rocker to challenge any other on the scene. The Pretenders is one of the all-time great debut albums. The band is white hot throughout, even on ballads like “Up the Neck” and the strikingly mature “Kid”, but Hynde’s too-cool snarl and extraordinary songs are what really makes Pretenders a classic. “Precious”, “The Wait”, and the disturbingly ambivalent account of Hyndes own rape at the hands of an Ohio biker gang “Tattooed Love Boys” are unhinged yet wildly melodic, and in the case of “Love Boys”, as rhythmically complex as a prog-rock workout. The superb hit “Brass in Pocket” is a yearning, sexy Motown pastiche. Yes, this is Hynde’s record, but the rest of the band all make major contributions, from Martin Chambers’s tom-tom attack that launches it all to James Honeyman-Scott’s squealing guitar solos on “Tattooed Love Boys” to Pete Farndon pounding the album to it its conclusion with a bass line for the ages on “Mystery Achievement”. Even the throwaway instrumental by Farndon and Honeyman-Scott is terrific. Absolutely indispensable.

3. Empty Glass by Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend suggested to the press that The Who might actually be rejuvenated by Keith Moon’s death, but his behavior and work told another story. If fans were taken aback by his seeming insensitivity to a fallen friend, the truth was that Townshend was devastated by the loss of his band’s inimitable drummer. What followed was a great, big leap into the void. When Pete wasn’t messing with heroin, he was obliterating himself with drink, one time actually waking up in the bear pit of a London zoo, an incident he’d later commemorate on The Who’s “Cache Cache”. Although he did continue to contribute such uncompromisingly personal songs to his band, he started saving his best ones for himself. They can be heard on the devastating Empty Glass (as in “the glass is neither half-empty nor half-full”). The album got a big push from the joyous, devotional pop song “Let My Love Open the Door”, but the rest of it is far more introspective. Townshend explores his increasingly complicated sexuality on “And I Moved”, on which he rhapsodizes about being seduced by a man, and “A Little Is Enough”, on which he rhapsodizes about reuniting with his estranged wife. On the minor-hit “Rough Boys”, he uses sexual threats as a means to intimidate and emasculate male rivals... or is it an S&M confession? “I Am an Animal” is a crazed exploration of his innumerable contradictions— kind of a less despairing update of The Who’s “However Much I Booze”. And on “Jools and Jim” he takes on the journalists who waxed indifferent to Moon’s death, while also giving a nod to the punk movement he helped create. Townshend being Townshend, he saves some of that loathing for himself, and Townshend being Townshend, all of this bile, love, and self-analysis is voiced through songs of audacious power and beauty. The Who’s final two albums of the early eighties lacked the band’s former fury, but Townshend’s first proper solo record revealed that he was far from finished. Ultimately, he transformed a potential musical suicide note into a record that is in its own odd way, hopeful. The album’s final note, “Gonna Get Ya”, certainly indicates that the man was still one hungry, determined bastard.

2. The Black Album by The Damned

Having expanded punk as far as it could go and creating the genre’s finest work with 1979’s Machine Gun Etiquette, The Damned could only move beyond the genre with their next record. That means The Black Album is something of a transitional record, neither as ferocious as the one that preceded it or as accomplished as the one that followed it (1982’s stunning Strawberries). The Damned play with a lot of different styles as they search for their new sound, which only once leads them into sketchy territory (the infamously overproduced synth-popper “History of the World, [Part 1]”). Otherwise, The Damned get damned daring while making some of their best music. “Wait for the Black Out”, “Drinking About My Baby”, and “Hit or Miss” are really the only tracks that fully acknowledge the band’s punk past. “Lively Arts” comes close, but the shivery synth on the chorus nudges the track further into the Goth direction the band first set its sites on with “These Hands” and “Plan 9 Channel 7” from Etiquette. Halloweeny ballads “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, which features some exceptional work by new bassist Paul Gray, “Twisted Nerve”, and “12th Floor Vendetta” tread deeper into Goth territory. The insane “Therapy” smacks of prog and Captain Sensible’s “Silly Kids Games”, a swipe at game shows, is sunny pop complete with Beach Boys harmonies. It’s a terrific track, but overall, one feels the presence of vampiric singer Dave Vanian more than any other member of the band. He makes his most profound impression on “Curtain Call”, which sweeps all the disparate styles on the album into a harrowing, 17-minute epic that would have gotten The Damned’s punk membership card revoked had they recorded it two years earlier. Jam-loaded with darkly atmospheric verses, deliriously catchy choruses, a dreamy bridge added by the Cap’n, a plethora of sound effects and synthesizer experiments, and a chilling tape loop of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”, “Curtain Call” couldn’t be more at odds with punk ethos, yet it’s a divine piece of music, and my pick for the single greatest songs of the eighties. Unforgivably, “Curtain Call” was a casualty in the U.S., where the U.K. double-L.P. was snipped to a single (a side of live numbers was lost too), but all necessary elements of The Black Album have since been restored on CD, so this great record can once again be heard just as Satan intended.

1. Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

While touring the U.S. in 1979, Elvis Costello had an infamous encounter with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett that nearly destroyed his career. In a drunken, punk-style attempt to offend the aging hippies, he made some ugly, obnoxious, and insincere comments about James Brown and Ray Charles. When Bramlett went to the press with Costello’s remarks, the media painted him as a racist (obviously, not without reason). Many believed his decision to next release an album of Tamla-Motown and Stax-inspired rave ups to be his way of apologizing and proving that he “really like(s) black people.” As a P.R. move, it was pretty lame. As a montage of twenty short, sharp rockers in the R&B mode, Get Happy!! was and is magnificent. Elvis’s earlier albums contained ample hints that sixties soul played a major role in his music, but never would he focus so directly on the music as he did on Get Happy!! The stripped-down arrangements ultimately make the record sound more in line with soul-inspired British bands like Small Faces, The Action, and The Merseys (whose “I Stand Accused” Elvis and the Attractions cover here) than the brass-laden American original acts, but the decision not to overproduce Get Happy!! was a smart one. This is a fusion of punk and soul so perfectly executed it must have made Paul Weller jealous. Stuff like “Love for Tender”, “The Imposter”, “High
 Fidelity”, “Beaten to the Punch”, and an amphetamine-fueled reading of Sam and Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up (For Falling Down)” blaze by in a streak of sweaty fury and stunning rhythmic accuracy. Bassist Bruce Thomas and drummer Pete Thomas are the underrated heroes of Get Happy!!, while Steve Nieve’s organ and piano lines—creepy crawly one moment, stately and bold the next—contribute a dazzling shimmer to it all. But this is Elvis’s show, and he gets off  of his best songs here, and not just when he’s burning down the barn. The sensual soul of “Clown Time is Over”, “Opportunity”, and “Motel Matches” are as fine as anything else on the platter. The two non-soul-inspired songs are among the album’s greatest: “New Amsterdam”, a woozy waltz on which Elvis supplies all the instruments, and the Procol Harum-swirl of “Riot Act”, on which he bitterly defends himself against the post-Stills/Bramlett flack. Two albums later, the band took a trip to the other end of music’s spectrum, a largely lifeless, soulless collection of Country standards called Almost Blue, leaving Get Happy!! and Trust as the cappers on a truly spectacular string of records that began in ’77 with My Aim Is True.

10 More Great Albums from 1980
Back in Black by AC/DC
Wild Planet by The B-52s
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) by David Bowie
Sandinista! by The Clash
Songs the Lord Taught Us by The Cramps 
Seventeen Seconds by The Cure
Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by Dead Kennedys
Dirty Mind by Prince

Rev Up by The Revillos
True Colors by Split Enz
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