Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1976

By 1976, Rock & Roll was in dire shape. The best work of the genre’s old guard—The Who, The Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, The ex-Beatles—was behind them. Pretentious prog rockers clogged arenas with their endless bluster. Crushingly dull soft poppers polluted the top twenty with “Dream Weaver” and “Let Your Love Flow”. The dull mechanism of disco had already begun to grind. Then up from the underground swooped a host of new artists intent on recapturing the vitality and brevity that made Rock & Roll so meaningful in the first place. Punk was still a year away from pervading, and the New Wave was even further off, but groups like The Ramones, The Damned, Blondie, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers provided the first flavors of a new movement devoted to good old Rock & Roll. A change had come, and whether young artists were raging away with refreshing vigor or old ones were winding down with their final major statements, 1976 was a time of revitalization. Here are ten of the most vital records released during that transitional year.

10. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap - AC/DC

The first half of the ‘70s was largely defined by post-Sgt. Pepper’s intellectualism, whether it was being played by the real deal (nerdy Genesis and King Crimson) or dumb guys posing (Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, who admittedly, both did a damn good job of it). Australia’s AC/DC were dumb guys rip-roaringly proud of being dumb guys. Their formula of sinewy power chords, metronomic drumming, lavatory-wall humor, and Bon Scott’s leering shrieks was the perfect soundtrack to tooling around in a muscle car with the wind blowing through your mullet while chucking empty cans of Bud out the window. And wasn’t this more the essence of Rock & Roll than eleven-minute odes to Tolkien? Legions of devoted fans who stuck with AC/DC through more than thirty years of releasing the same album over and over would certainly agree. But what an album it is! AC/DC’s third version of the AC/DC album is Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and it is as great as any other. Produced by former Easybeats Harry Vanda and George Young—older brother of Angus and Malcolm— Dirty Deeds is particularly pleasurable because it is raw (much more so than Mutt Lange’s more popular but overly polished productions), yet the band is totally tight and the songwriting is as diverse as anyone could expect from AC/DC. The title track is a fist pumper about a hit man who peddles his wares to high school kids! “Ain’t No Fun (Waiting ‘Round to Be a Millionaire)” is long but simple and quite intense: equal parts Chuck Berry boogie and Abbey Road jangle. “Big Balls” is an ultra-stupid and ultra-fun ode to, well, big balls (both the kind that take place in ballrooms and the kind that dangle down the side of Angus Young’s shorts). “Ride On” is that rarest of items: an AC/DC soul ballad. Maybe Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap isn’t your typical AC/DC record after all.

9. Blondie - Blondie

Because they were part of the NYC CBGB crowd, Blondie got lumped in with the punks. Their peers even criticized them as sell outs when they pumped some disco sass into 1979’s “Heart of Glass”. But that backlash wasn’t really fair since Debbie Harry and the boys wore their pop intentions on their well-tailored sleeves from the word “go.” As soon as Clem Burke kicks in the drum beat and Harry begins her ultra-cool recitation at the start of “X-Offender”, it’s unmistakable that Blondie’s reference points are The Shangri-La’s, Phil Spector, ‘60s garage rock, and B-movies. These were The Ramones’ reference points too, but that band squeezed their pop influences through a sieve of MC5 fuzz and Stooges speed. Even with Burke’s Keith Moon-inspired thunder, Blondie played sweet pop cleanly. The fastest thing here is “In the Sun”, which is more reminiscent of Dick Dale surf than Stooges terrorism. The meanest, “Rip Her to Shreds”, is an overt Aftermath pastiche. “Man Overboard” even bears traces of the disco that would cause Blondie so much grief and success a few years later. Blondie is certainly an eclectic affair, although that isn’t always a good thing. The record’s less successful stabs (“Man Overboard”, the noodly “Look Good in Blue”, the over-synthesized “A Shark in Jets Clothing”) expose a new group groping around for their sound. Fortunately, the vast majority of Blondie—“X-Offender”, “Rip Her to Shreds”, “In the Sun”, the swooning “In the Flesh”, “Little Girl Lies”, the tough “Kung Fu Girls”, the goofy conga line “The Attack of the Giant Ants”— shows they eventually found it.

8. Modern Lovers - The Modern Lovers

Jonathan Richman was barely twenty when he and The Modern Lovers started recording their first album in 1972. It’s almost shocking to hear how innocent young Richman was during a time when The Stones and Led Zeppelin made cynicism and decadence de rigueur. Mick certainly wouldn’t have crooned, “I’m not stoned like Hippie Johnny… I’m straight, I’m proud to say.” That’s doubly true for Lou Reed, and The Modern Lovers’ complete appropriation of The Velvet Underground sound as accompaniment to Richman’s square declarations is borderline subversive. Unhip as the messages imparted by “Old World”, “Dignified and Old”, and “Someone I Care About” may be, the band grinds them out with raw swagger. Original Velvet John Cale is the producer to thank for most of The Modern Lovers, but the record’s lack of polish might have made it sound rather out of place among the class of ’72. Years of record label indecision, producer turnover, and personal problems delayed the album’s release until ‘76. By then the times had caught up with its punky grit, if not Richman’s anti-juvenile lyricism. The original Modern Lovers line-up had essentially dissolved, leaving Jerry Harrison and David Robinson to move on to bigger things with Talking Heads and The Cars, respectively. Jonathan Richman went on to a culty solo career, but arguably none of those post Modern Lovers acts ever did anything as euphoric as “Roadrunner”.

7. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

With records like Blondie and The Modern Lovers (and one a bit further down this list), 1976 was a pretty damn good year for eponymous debuts. Although the full-on punk onslaught was still a year away, much of ‘76’s new breed indicated a shift away from the big, pretentious corporate and cock rockers that had dominated 1970s Rock thus far. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were sometimes ranked among the punks, and later the New Wave, simply because blinkered commentators couldn’t figure any other way to categorize the group at a time when simple “Rock & Roll” wasn’t considered a relevant category. The Gainesville combo wasn’t concerned with relevance or categorization, which is why Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers must have been such a fresh breath in 1976. The only other writer at the time who shared Petty’s zeal for earthy tales of frustrated, small-town youth was Bruce Springsteen, yet The Boss tended to aim more epic and indulgent than the poppy Heartbreakers. Most of the tracks on their first album barely clear three minutes. Like the bands they worshipped—The Byrds, the early Beatles and Stones, The Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival—they said their piece and got out. And Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers is put together with pieces as infectious as the records that inspired it, whether the band broods (“Breakdown”), sprints (“Rockin’ Around [With You]”), jives (“Hometown Blues”), burns slowly (“The Wild One, Forever”), or rockets into jangly transcendence (“American Girl”).

6. Desire - Bob Dylan

Dylan seemed to spend the years following his 1966 motorcycle crash willfully chipping away at the unwieldy reputation he’d built during the earliest part of his career. Releasing the acoustic John Wesley Harding at the height of the psychedelic craze may have been an attempt to humble himself. However, it ended up being just as monumentally influential as his earlier work, almost single-handedly derailing psychedelia and inspiring his peers to dig their acoustic guitars out of their attics. Dylan knocked himself off his unwanted pedestal more successfully with pleasantly slight works such as Nashville Skyline and New Morning. He nearly self-destructed completely with Self Portrait, a mess of covers that earned him the worst reviews of his career. Dicking around for nearly a decade apparently had a restorative effect, and a tough divorce provided plenty of lyric material, so Dylan was ready to get back to serious work in late 1974 when he recorded Blood on the Tracks. 1976’s Desire continued the strength of that record. Dylan was still smarting from his split, as evidenced by the wrenching “Sara”, a more direct message to his ex-wife than anything on Blood on the Tracks. He diversified into biography with a stormy diatribe about the unfair trial of accused murderer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and a weepier but equally epic tribute to Joey Gallo, whom Dylan paints as a sort of morally slanted Mafioso, a portrayal that stirred some controversy. The rest of the record is far less dicey, with the pretty trifle “Mozambique”, the beautifully ragged “One More Cup of Coffee”, the picturesque “Romance in Durango”, and the jaunty “Black Diamond Bay”. Some have criticized both Blood on the Tracks and Desire for the restraint of Dylan’s musical support (Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh called the former’s performances “perfunctory” and wrote that the latter lacked “a great band”). While this criticism holds some water regarding Blood, Desire gains a great deal of its personality from Scarlet Rivera’s fiddling, the distinctively loose rhythm section, and Emmy Lou Harris’s raw pipes.

5. Shake Some Action - The Flamin’ Groovies

The Flamin’ Groovies were retro before retro became an acceptable Rock mission statement. Their 50/50 split between originals and faithfully performed oldies seemed hopelessly out-of-date on their 1969 debut Supersnazz. That record was a flop and killed The Groovies’ hopes of playing on the same field as their buddies in The Rolling Stones, but it did not divert their objective. Shake Some Action is another hodgepodge of new and old numbers, but the band has shifted its gaze away from ‘50s Americana to ‘60s British pop. The album is an astonishing recreation of an early Mersey beat record. The guys harmonize like the Fab Four on spectacular pop nuggets such as “I Can’t Hide”, “Yes, It’s True”, and “You Tore Me Down”, and nearly tumble into Rutles territory with “Please Please Girl”. “I’ll Cry Alone” broods like something on Beatles for Sale, even as the drummer hits a hell of a lot harder than Ringo tended to. In case any listener has missed the point, the guys toss in a hyped-up cover of “Misery”. But Shake Some Action is not merely some sort of cod Beatles tribute record. It’s also a neat source of Rolling Stones covers covers (“Don’t Lie to Me”, “She Said Yeah”) and more obscure nuggets (Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Sometimes”, The Lovin Spoonful’s “Let the Boy Rock & Roll”). The Groovies branch out on the title track, a glorious power pop anthem that could have fit nicely on an early Nick Lowe record. They reach levels of drama on “I Saw Her” and “Teenage Confidential” that would have made The Shangri-La’s jealous. Pure pop didn’t get any sweeter than this in 1976.

4. Songs in the Key of Life - Stevie Wonder

Along with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder was the first Motown artist who really used the L.P. to stretch out into unexplored nooks of the cosmos. His brilliant run of albums from Music of My Mind to Fulfillingness’ First Finale put enough currency into his artistic bank account to warrant the go-for-broke Songs in the Key of Life. Like all great double albums, Songs is a messy, overly ambitious sprawl that requires –-and completely rewards –-its listeners’ patience and attention. The sun rises with the statement of purpose “Love’s In Need of Love Today”, an epic that eases listeners into a strange world in which religious communion takes on a disturbing, mechanized tinge (“Have a Talk with God”), stately synthesizers lend irony to bleak urban landscapes (“Village Ghetto Land”; “Pastime Paradise”), and mind-melting funk burbles from the tiles of radicalized elementary schoolrooms (“Black Man”). Wonder revels in experimentation throughout Songs in the Key of Life, yet he also proves he can produce soul-pop as deliciously accessible as his best ‘60s hits with “I Wish” and “Sir Duke”. But even the album’s most popular tracks bear the stamp of Wonder’s far-out ambitions. Has any hit song ever housed a trickier riff than the one that rises and falls in the center of “Sir Duke”? Has any slice of MOR schmaltz other than “Isn’t She Lovely” ever extended into a jam punctuated by creepy baby coos worthy of Eraserhead? As unfettered as Songs in the Key of Life is, Wonder displayed commendable restraint in bunching its least successful tracks on a bonus 7”, so there isn’t much anyone should feel compelled to skip during the core album’s 86 minutes. Maybe the fusion detour “Contusion”? Or the sappy “Isn’t She Lovely”? The slightly precious “If It’s Magic”, perhaps? In the end, albums like Songs in the Key of Life are about the artist’s willingness to take chances, perhaps not always achieving total success, but never boring, never creating music by rote. When the sun sets and Wonder goes out partying with “Another Star”, his listeners have completed a winding, fascinating, rocky trip without ever having to step away from their stereos.

3. Station to Station - David Bowie

When David Bowie announced he was “finished with Rock & Roll” in the mid ‘70s, he was only half joking. In fact, he’d been deliberately moving away from the riffy electricity of his earlier career for several years, eulogizing the old guard and enjoying one final fling with the Spiders from Mars with the all-covers Pin Ups in 1973, then experimenting with blue-eyed soul on 1975’s Young Americans. Soon he’d hook up with Brian Eno and program a series of icy, ambient, and critically celebrated records to round out his defining decade. But first: transition. Not as Rock oriented as his previous records, nor as frigid as the ones that would immediately follow, Station to Station is a modest masterpiece. The record’s six songs are anthemic and epic without being overblown or overly reliant on instrumental flash. The album even makes room for a cover, and it’s a testament to Bowie’s taste and precise judgment that the version of Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind” that closes Station to Station feels very much a part of the record’s sonic and emotional concept. And as cool as the Thin White Duke’s voice is throughout, this is an emotionally engaging record, achieving ultimate uplift in the vamps that climax the title track and “TVC 15”, striding the balance beam between melancholia and beautiful release on “Word on a Wing” and “Wild Is the Wind”, and putting a bit of jiggle in the legs on the restrained yet supernaturally funky “Golden Years” and “Stay”.

2. Presence - Led Zeppelin

Awesome as Led Zeppelin is, their persona was always more than a little dependent on absurd posturing: Robert Plant’s attempts to pass himself off as a grizzled bluesman or a Middle Earth swashbuckler, Jimmy Page’s Satanic gestures, etc. If you still harbor any doubts about that matter, check out the stupid medieval fantasy sequences in The Song Remains the Same. But the troubles Robert Plant experienced during 1975 were enough to humble even the goldenest god. The singer was badly injured in a car accident that forced the band to cancel a scheduled tour. He began suffering bouts of claustrophobia while recording the latest Zeppelin disc confined to a wheelchair, and took a painful spill that inspired the title of the record’s first track. Combine all that with extreme homesickness, and all of Plant’s iconic pretentions melted away, making way for the real human sadness that suffuses Led Zeppelin’s most honest album. Presence is stark and steel grey. There isn’t a single acoustic guitar, mandolin, or keyboard on the record. Aside from the fun funky toss-off “Royal Orleans” and the Rock-a-Billy takeoff “Candy Store Rock”, Presence reveals a serious band getting down to serious business seriously. “Achilles Last Stand” starts the record off with its only mythology references, but the track is more about Page’s iron tapestry than Plant’s barely audible lyrics. Despite the dozen-or-so guitars, “Achilles Last Stand” is both lean and spacious, a high-speed race through cavernous corridors. “For Your Life”, on which Plant returns to Earth to lament the damages the L.A. drug scene laid on a close friend (Page perhaps?), is contrastingly claustrophobic and dense. This may be the most legitimately scary pair of tracks to ever open a Led Zeppelin record. Equally disturbing is the Side-B opener, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”, which appropriates blues clichés more genuinely than any of the band’s other songs. In light of the events surrounding its creation, Plant’s regretful cries about dealing with the devil bear no trace of parody. His eardrum-piercing harp blast halfway through the track is nothing short of a primal scream. “Hots on for Nowhere”, another of Page’s guitar tour-de-forces, uses a bouncy riff to conceal Plant’s harsh words for a disloyal friend (Page again?). All of the record’s anguish culminates in its quietest track. “Tea for One” is an epic blues many have dismissed as a lazy rewrite of “Since I’ve Been Loving You”, yet this reflection of Plant’s homesickness is a far more honest piece, packing the most tortured singing and guitar work of his and Page’s career. Led Zeppelin only managed one more record before John Bonham’s death, and In Through the Out Door was a brave but spotty departure. Jimmy Page seems barely present throughout that finale. So in its own way, Presence is the final real Led Zeppelin album, and the band never sounded more real.

1. Ramones - The Ramones

Like John, Paul, George, and Ringo 15 years before them, and Kurt, Krist, and Dave 15 years after, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy did not set out to rescue Rock & Roll. They were just righteously fed up with the noodling, pomp, and wimpiness pervading the scene and decided to play the kind of Spartan garage rock they dug. As bassist, chief composer, and chief wack-a-doo Dee Dee Ramone was heard to crow, “I think Rock & Roll should be three words and a chorus, and the three words should be good enough to say it all.” This was barely exaggeration. On their eponymous debut, The Ramones stripped away all of Rock & Roll’s pretenses that had accumulated since Sgt. Pepper’s. No guitar solos; just fun. All tracks kick off in simultaneous fury (“1, 2, 3, 4!”), all have sing-songy choruses. Some are nothing but choruses. Although The Ramones are famous— and were initially criticized— for their simplicity, Johnny Ramones’s neck-breaking down strokes require tremendous stamina and precision, as does the drumming of Tommy Ramone, who learned the instrument simply because the group he helped assemble needed a drummer. Speed, simplicity, catchiness, thunder. This music The Ramones invented wasn’t called punk yet, but it would be soon enough. Like John Waters, The Ramones collected the raw refuse of trash culture and defiant bad taste and molded it all into a monumental new art form. Horror movies, junk food, comic books, amusement parks, makeshift drugs, turning tricks, boneheaded agit prop, and sleazy violence all became pop fodder. Also like Waters, The Ramones paid tribute to a crime ridden, scuzzy city. Ramones simply stinks of New York City. Aside from the infamous “53rd and 3rd”, specific references are sparer here than they would be on subsequent records on which they’d praise Coney Island, Rockaway Beach, and the like. But Ramones sounds like New York. The grinding gears of a subway train. The quick snick of a switchblade. The expletive shout of a passing cabby. The wicked giggle of a purse snatcher. These sounds fester between the lines of all 14 tracks that comprise the only record that mattered in 1976. But Ramones isn’t all danger and menace, and even when the guys are belching out pseudo-Nazi nonsense (“Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World”), promoting child abuse (“Beat on the Brat”), rhapsodizing about bloody “massacrees” (“Chainsaw”) or bodega drugs (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), The Ramones just sound like a bunch of dumb kids looking for fun. And what is Rock & Roll if not that? Hail, hail.

(This overview of Ramones is an edit of the more in-depth Track by Track: 'Ramones')
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