My music reviews for the year of 1978.
1. Wire: Chairs Missing (10/10)
In Rip it Up and Start Again, the music journalist Simon Reynolds makes the case that post punk began in October of 1978 with the release of “Public Image” backed with “The Cowboy Song.” The argument is this: John Lydon has abandoned both his nom de punk “Johnny Rotten” and the punk music that made him famous, even while maintaining much of the attitude of punk musicians. In the music’s place is so much of what came to represent British post punk in the late ’70s and into the ’80s, including influences from dance music and world music, and ’70s art rock from the UK and Germany.
I have been listening to a lot of music from 1978 this year, 40 years on, and I have encountered two records that make Reynolds’ claim highly dubious, even though it was a claim I readily agreed with when I read his book.
The first is Magazine’s Real Life. It certainly fits part of the requirement as Howard Devoto renounced the Buzzcocks. But musically it’s closer to American New Wave than it is to any of the post punk that came after it.
The second is this record, Chairs Missing, Wire’s borderline complete abandonment of their punk debut – there are still some hints, especially on tracks on side 2, but on the whole this band is virtually unrecognizable. It has a better case than Magazine’s debut album or PiL’s first single as the first ever post punk record.
In addition to being trailblazing, it is, of course, very good, full of catchy but weird songs, none of which stay too long, with thought-provoking lyrics.
An absolute classic.
2. The Clash: Give’em Enough Rope (10/10)
3. Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! (10/10)
Though they were perhaps a little late to the party – at least in terms of a major label release – this still seems to be to be a pretty foundational document of new wave. And, moreover, it’s somehow way nerdier than the rest of new wave, which is not something I thought possible. Though there are traces here and there of traditional rock and roll, most of this is so herky jerky “new wave” it feels like a sampler of the origins of the genre. The “Satisfaction” cover is far more out there than even the Raincoats’ “Lola” cover (never thought I would be saying that) and the rest of music (and lyrics) fairly destroys rock cliches too.
3. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (10/10)
I came to the Heads through Remain in Light – an album I would put right near the top of my short list of the best pop rock of the eighties – and the albums of that era and, a little later, Stop Making Sense. And so the band I know as the Heads is the band they became not the band they were originally. (With the possible exception of their cover of “Take Me to the River,” which has been played often enough on classic rock radio that I probably heard it before I even knew there was a band called Talking Heads.)
This is about as late seventies American New Wave as it gets. It’s textbook. It’s not quite Devo herky jerky – it’s a little too traditional for that – but it’s definitely more so than, say, Television. Even before going all funk / world music / dance fusion on us, the Heads clearly knew what they were doing. Pretty much everything here is note-perfect in terms of balancing clearly identifiable rock music and quirkiness. And the lyrics obviously help, as Byrne avoids the typical rock topics better than most songwriters.
5. Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (9/10)
New Wave taken to its most extreme. Read the review of The Modern Dance.
6. Grupo Irakere (9/10)
Possibly released in 1976. Read the review.
7. Judas Priest: Stained Class (9/10)
I say this in ignorance but possibly the invention of The New Wave of Heavy Metal. Read the review of Stained Class.
8. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (9/10)
9. X-Ray Spex: Germfree Adolescents (9/10)
Fantastic first wave punk complete with saxophone. Really solid; full of hooks and vitriol and that barely competent saxophone makes the whole thing sound much more musical than it should.
10. Tom Robinson Band: Power in the Darkness (9/10)
Great political pub rock that is basically punk. Read the review of Power in the Darkness.
11. Brian Eno: Ambient #1: Music for Airports (9/10)
Whether or not this is the first ambient album (it’s very likely not), this is the record that gave the genre its name. As such, it’s incredibly iconic.
It’s also the first ambient record I ever heard and, for me, the gold standard in what ambient music should be.
I used to listen to this record when I studied for math tests and exams – I listened to only instrumental music for that – and so it has etched itself in my mind in a way no other ambient record has (not other record has been given the chance).
Ambient is such a hard genre to judge because it’s easy to reject the concept outright and, even if you don’t reject the concept outright, it’s super easy to get bored. But for me, this is the record I think about when someone says the word “ambient” and I can’t really imagine another record replacing it in my mind.
12. Kraftwerk: Die Mensh-Maschine (9/10)
The invention of synthpop. Read the review of The Man-Machine.
13. Magazine: Real Life (8/10)
Quite possibly the first ever “post punk” record. Read the review of Real Life.
14. Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (8/10)
A pretty stellar debut. Read the review of The Kick Inside.
15. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: This Year’s Model (8/10)
In 2011, I wrote the following:
Rawer than the debut, which is nice. Perhaps a little more cohesive as well. Though it is better sounding I’m not sure the songs are quite as strong: it’s a trade-off, something got better and something got not quite as good. I guess that’s where I’m leaving it.
I’m not sure when the last time I listened to his debut was. But I have a hard time imagining what I said to be correct, given how polished this record is in comparison to the punks. I also feel like the songs are stronger than I gave him credit for; after all, that’s his strength.
One day I should listen to all his records in a row and decide what I really think.
16. Big Star: Third / Sister Lovers (9/10)
I’m not a Big Star obsessive so I am the wrong person to opine about whether or not this record is actually a Big Star record, a Chilton solo album or a record by a new band different from Big Star. History says it’s a Big Star record whatever Chilton thinks.
I should also point out that the version I have of this record is not the version released in 1978. There are numerous versions of it and I’ve never actually bothered to look at the 1978 track sequence and tried to recreate it with the super deluxe whatever version I have, which contains most of the music recorded in 1974.
Big Star is a band I respect more than like; I am not a big power pop fan – I prefer my music to have a little more weirdness to it – but I get that what they did was important and they were very, very good at it.
So this record is much more my kind of thing; it’s a glorious mess with ragged and professional parts clashing and a general sense of falling apart that has rarely been captured better on record. (The quality of the session musicians arguably makes it much more accessible than it might of been.)
And I get that this particular record has been rather hugely influential on a certain type of songwriter, who wants to write catchy songs but doesn’t want them to be happy.
I do feel like the record, because it is a failed record, has come to exist a little too large in the critical world. It’s not quite as good as it’s made out to be and its reputation has a lot to do with the career of the band and Chilton, as much as it does to do with the actual record.
Still, if you are going to listen to a power pop record from the 1970s, this is the one you should listen to.
17. Micheal Tippett: String Quartet No. 4 (8/10)
Much like the third quartet differs from the first two, does the fourth differ from the third: its first movement is almost Elliott Carter-esque. (Well, it’s not that insane, but it’s much more out there than normal Tippett.)
I really like this piece a lot, but it does also feel like Tippett is a little late to the party here. Others have explored this territory first. Though Tippett does it very well.
18. Van Der Graaf: Vital (8/10)
19. Television: Adventure (8/10)
No, it’s not Marquee Moon. Read the review of Adventure.
20. Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (8/10)
Years ago – perhaps in my late teens or early 20s – I decided that I would like funk music. I didn’t really know what it sounded like – beyond a couple Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown oldies I knew – but for some reason I decided my musical education wouldn’t be complete without funk. This was particularly odd coming from me: I’ve never danced. I feel unbelievably self-conscious when soberly attempting to move to music. So it was an odd decision.
It didn’t go very well: the farthest I got was the Head Hunters, so not very far. A few years ago I finally heard a decent survey of James Brown’s catalogue. So I sort of have a better idea of what (a certain type of) funk sounds like now, but I never really got into it like I planned. So I guess this is me belatedly filling an ambition, no matter how silly.
On my first listen I was rather appalled. This record is regarded by some as The Greatest Funk Album of All Time. But here were some inane lyrics. Now, James Brown has some inane lyrics, but I don’t know if they’ve ever gotten this inane:
“Pledge a groovallegiance to the funk /
The United Funk of Funkadelica /
Dey funk, well dey funk, today funk /
Of da United Funk of Funkadelica”
(If I’m being honest with myself, Brown has even more inane lyrics than that…)
I know it’s dance music. I have to turn my brain off. But I have a hard time. And some of vocal “grunts” (for lack of a better word) are just so cliché they’re hard to take.
But Hampton just shreds on a couple of these tracks, and as a very big fan of guitar playing, I can’t help but be won over by his playing.
And I realize that the reason I think the vocals are so cliché is because they have become so ingrained in our culture since the ’70s. From funk-influenced R&B singers to sketch comedians, everyone references the vocal noises that were apparently a big part of funk music in the ’70s, and the fact that they have become parodic doesn’t mean the original stuff was. (That being said, I realize that some of this vocal stuff was being done by Brown in the late ’60s, so it could be perceived as dated by the release of this album.)
And so there is a big part of me that wants to hate this – why can’t this music have more of a brain? – but I can’t deny that this record is at least seminal, if not exactly what I was hoping for when I heard it was dubbed Greatest Funk Album of All Time.
I think I will have more look in the earlier Funkadelic records, which are perhaps a little more rock for my liking.
As an aside: What is it that someone like George Clinton does during recordings? I find it fascinating how band “leadership” is conceived of within some of the R and B / “urban” traditions. Clinton writes the lyrics (I assume), does he write the music? He barely sings (if my ears are telling me the truth). He produces, he presumably directs the band in some way. But if he doesn’t write music, how does he do that? Weird.
21. The Jam: All Mod Cons (8/10)
22. Van Halen (8?/10)
This should be rated higher but I really don’t want to rate it higher. Read the review of Van Halen’s debut album.
23. Buzzcocks: Another Music in a Different Kitchen (8/10)
I don’t like this, but it’s important. Read the review of the Buzzcocks’ debut.
24. Can’t Stand the Rezillos (8/10)
I like this more than the Buzzcocks’ record, but it’s less important. Read the review of Can’t Stand the Rezillos.
25. Buzzcocks: Love Bites (8/10)
I like this more than the firs Buzzcocks record but it’s not as important. Read the review of Love Bites.
26. Dixie Dregs: What if? (8/10)
27. Little Feat: Waiting for Columbus (8/10)
28. Blondie: Parallel Lines (7/10)
This is not really new wave. It’s pretty great power pop though. Read the review of Parallel Lines.
29. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (7/10)
Many years ago, having listened to the four records between Beggars Banquet and Exile way too much, I listened to this record. I heard the “disco” and I heard other things I thought were awful and I rated it 4/10 and never thought of it again.
Many years later, I’m older and ostensibly wiser. And I’ve heard the outtake record, Emotional Rescue, again and pilloried it on my podcast, as it’s not good. And I’ve found that, with time, I find my initial rating incomprehensible. (I didn’t write a review, as far as I know.)
Yes, the Stones are trend-hopping, but they do it rather well. And there are three, maybe even four songs here that rank among the best of their post-Exile records. Even “Miss You,” which I’m sure I hated when I was 25.
Yes, “Some Girls” has dated rather horribly and reminds me (in lyrical content) a little too much of Rod Stewart at his ickiest. But the other weaker tracks are pretty damn passable. And the whole thing sounds like a masterpiece in comparison to the record they put out next.
I have not heard Tattoo You in a very long time, but I’d be tempted to say this is the best album they put out after their prime.
30. Patti Smith Group: Easter (7/10)
I don’t love this because of some hang up I have about Smith, but it’s good. Read the review of Easter.
31. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (7/10)
What is happening? I think I (mostly) like this. Read the review of Darkness on the Edge of Town.
32. The Saints: Eternally Yours (7/10)
The birth of “punk with horns.” Read the review of Eternally Yours.
33. Jethro Tull: Heavy Horses (7/10)
For years I told myself I believed the received opinion that Songs From the Wood was the return to form and this record isn’t quite up to that standard. I think I definitely actually felt that way when I first heard this record but years later, I do not feel that way.
Like virtually every set of Ian Anderson songs from the mid ’70s onward, this record suffers from Anderson’s fetishistic fondness for rural English life, which lacks Ray Davies’ insight and occasional winks. But there’s more muscle, more often than not, on this record than on the previous one, which makes it much easier to take. I still don’t love it if I listen to the lyrics too closely but I am able to ignore the lyrics more often than not, much more than I can on the previous record.
At least today, I think it’s the better record. But I’d still take early Tull over this any day.
34. Nick Lowe: Jesus of Cool (7/10)
In 2010 or so, I wrote the following:
Costello calls him England’s Greatest Songwriter. It’s hard to tell from this collection which mostly features slightly-too-polished parodies and vignettes. In the liner notes Lowe admits that he wasn’t serious yet. Maybe this isn’t the place to start looking for his greatness.
It’s just a little underwhelming. It doesn’t help that the music store guy told me it was his idea of a near-perfect album. I mean it’s all very competent. But I have definitely heard funnier songs and albums (way funnier). I can think of a number of better albums from this year alone, and a number of ’70s albums with better overall songcraft.
I guess the moral is don’t take Costello’s word for it unless you agree with him about other things. Oops.
I think it’s fascinating that Elvis Costello, the protege, was releasing his second album when Lowe, the mentor, was releasing his debut solo record. Though you could complain that Costello isn’t punk enough to have been labeled punk by some critics, his music make Lowe’s sound like it’s from another time.
I don’t know that I’ll ever forget that Costello told me Nick Lowe was England’s Greatest Songwriter, and until I forget I’m not sure I will ever be able to approach his music fairly. Also, not being a fan of power pop, I don’t find acerbic power pop to be much better.
35. Crossing the Red Sea with the Adverts (7/10)
Very catchy but I don’t know that it’s distinct enough to deserve its acclaim. Read the review of The Adverts’ debut album.
36. The Pat Metheny Group (7/10)
37. Rush: Hemispheres (7/10)
38. Johnny Thunders: So Alone (7/10)
This may have been over-hyped for me. Dare I say it, McKagan’s tribute (“So Fine”) is actually better than the inspiration.
39. Peter Gabriel [Scratch] (7/10)
Better than the debut, but still a long way to go. Read the review of Scratch.
40. Tom Waits: Blue Valentine (7/10)
I can’t wait for the 1980s. Read the review of Blue Valentine.
41. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (7/10)
Zevon doesn’t really move the needle for me. Read the review of Excitable Boy.
42. C’est Chic (7/10)
Not my thing. Read the review of C’est Chic.
43. Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Bootsy? Player of the Year (6/10)
Basically imitation Parliament. Read the review of Bootsy? Player of the Year.
44. David Gilmour (6/10)
45. Ramones: Road to Ruin (6/10)
46. The Cars (5/10)
New Wave is dead. Long live New Wave. Read the review of The Cars’ debut album.
47. Various Artists: Grease Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (5/10)
Nostalgia. Read the review of Grease.
48. Eric Johnson: Seven Worlds (4/10)
Don’t sing Eric. Please.
49. Gerry Rafferty: City to City (4/10)
Soft rock dreck. Read the review of City to City.