1979 in Music

My reviews for music released originally in 1979.

1. The Clash: London Calling (10/10)

For much of my adult life I have referred to this record as the punk White Album. But that really isn’t true. Though it is the most diverse record punk had yet produced, it hardly compares to The White Album in terms of diversity. That’s a more appropriate comparison for Sandinista! than this record, both in terms of that record’s diversity and its warts.

Instead, what London Calling is, to belabour the Beatles comparison, is their Revolver – perhaps the Clash’s best ever set of songs spanning a heretofore unimagined musical range – unimagined not just for The Clash but for the entire genre of punk. There’s reggae, of course, but there’s so much more, including psychedelia of all things (hence the Beatles comparisons, I guess). It is not only the Clash’s best album but it is also the best album a (traditional) punk band put out in 1970s, and probably ever.

2. Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (10/10)

The first X times I listened to this record I just didn’t get it. I have never been a particularly downbeat/mopey guy – save for a brief period in my teens where the hormones got to me – and so music that appeals to that side of the human personality is often lost on me, at least emotionally speaking. I remember listening to this record hearing ever so much hype about it and thinking this is the record so many people love? I grudgingly gave it an 8/10 for its “influence” (which I assumed) and moved on.

What changed was twofold: first, I listened to it enough to get over the strange production and, more importantly, I listened to way more British post punk, so much of which (a majority?) is heavily indebted to this band and this record.

It’s kind of hard to put into words how influential Joy Division was on British post punk. Sure, they were not the first post punk band (Magazine? Wire? PiL?) and other bands charted unique courses (those bands, The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party, etc) but so many British bands heard this record and decided they wanted to both make music like this band and, for better of worse, to sound like them.

Some of that can be attributed to the bizarre production. I am on record as not liking Hannett – because he basically has done this his whole career – but after years of reflection I think it’s actually one of the things that makes Joy Division so singular. Yes, the songs play a part. And Curtis himself plays a massive part. But the aura of the record has a lot to do with the idiosyncratic choices to sort of neuter their sound. That was pretty uncharacteristic (and weird, and path-breaking) at the time and it helped show the numerous musicians inspired by punk that they could be inspired by punk without sounding like a punk band. And then suddenly there were tons and tons of bands making music like this (though rarely as good).

This record stands as one of the most influential records of the 1970s because of its absolutely massive influence on the sound of the underground in the 1980s. And influence that cannot be overstated.

3. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (10/10)

Neil Young’s best “live” album – if you can call it that – likes to pretend it’s not a live album, much like Time Fades Away. But there are many differences from that record, which I also love.

For one thing the songs are better, as this is one of Young’s best set of songs, with one notable exception. It contains his famous statement on fame, but also many gems that are arguably as good or better, including “Thrasher” (my personal favourite here) and “Powderfinger” which as, Jason Ankey put it, “[is] a sudden, almost blindsiding metamorphosis, which is entirely the point — it’s the shot you never saw coming.”

And the performances are far more professional (and far less drunken) than Time Fades Away. This is both because of the involvement of Crazy Horse on the second half of the record and because Young was presumably doing a little bit better personally at this point. (Also, studio recordings help.)

It’s not really a live album – the live tracks have the crowd noise minimized and there are multiple tracks recorded in-studio – but it doesn’t really matter. What it is is one of the best statements of continued relevance by an ageing rock star, as he ponders that very relevance and tries to grappled with change, some of which he wrought himself.

One of my couple favourite Neil Young records.

4. Satyagraha by Philip Glass (10/10)

This is the middle of Glass’ “portrait opera” trilogy (which aren’t really operas in the traditional sense, as they lack narratives) though I’m listening to it last. It is significantly more traditional – in terms of music, not conception – than Einstein on the Beach but I feel like it is still readily identifiable as something minimalist, in a way in which I don’t think Akhnaten is. (The latter strikes me as perhaps his most traditional / conservative work.) The opera still lacks a traditional narrative but its concept is way less idiosyncratic than Einstein on the Beach.

The music is some of the prettiest of Glass’ career, and I am tempted to say this is my favourite of his works (though I regard Einstein on the Beach as his greatest achievement). I am also tempted to view this as some kind of counter to Nixon in China, but that’s probably all in my head. I almost like them both equally.

Wonderful stuff.

5. Pink Floyd: The Wall (10/10)

Ever since I first heard this album, and experienced how un-Floyd it was, I have been swaying back and forth between “it’s a masterpiece” and “it’s extremely flawed but it is still one of the more important records of the year, even the decade.” (Yes, I reject the idea that it is “utter dog shit” and anyone saying so has either never actually listened to it or is saying so because they think it makes them cool, just like the people who savage Sgt. Pepper because doing so makes them contrarian and iconoclastic.) Whether or not it is truly a masterpiece, it is one of the top few most iconic rock operas of all time (arguably the top two)

Today is one of the days when I am overwhelmed by its ambition, its invention and its sheer (relative) musicality. On a future day, I will likely get mad at the filler (especially in the second half) and say, well, it’s very good but t’s not great. I’m in a constant argument with myself.

What I can ay is that this is both very much a Pink Floyd album at times but more often it is very much something altogether different from anything they’ve ever done before (which I take as a big virtue). Its best moments are among their best moments, even if the whole band wasn’t always involved.

It’s very clearly a sign that the band would eventually split up, but it’s also proof that the competing personalities really did help each other – the ambition of Waters’ storytelling is helped both by his (and the band’s) obsession with record production and also by Gilmour and Ezrin’s demands of more memorable music.

It is one of the great rock operas ever made.

6. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (9/10)

If there is one record which shaped the sound sound of the post punk revival of the early aughts – which I like to mock as “post post punk” – it’s this one. For a time in like 2005 it felt as though all of those bands had basically only ever listened to Gang of Four (and maybe occasionally Wire or Joy Division) and ignored every other post punk band. And the funny thing about that is that it wasn’t Gang of Four who were super influential the first time out. (Maybe that’s why they were so influential on the revivalists…) Anyway, I bring this up because, if you loved that 21st century post punk, this is the album to get started with in exploring the genuine article.

What Gang of Four have managed to do is create an onslaught of catchy, danceable but angular songs full of biting, caustic lyrics of the kind basically never before associated with dance music. It’s one of the sources of “dance punk” but it’s more than that. It’s a reinvention of dance music as a vehicle for something other than just dancing. And it’s (relatively) slicker and more polished than the other contemporary post punk that took inspiration from funk and disco, meaning it’s so much more accessible.

Far from my favourite post punk record, but one of the most important.

7. Public Image Limited: [Metal Box] (9/10)

I am very open to experimental music. In fact, I would say I’m more open to experimental music than most. But when I first heard Metal Box, the first PiL album I ever heard, I really, really didn’t like it. The only thing that kept me listening to it was its absolutely hallowed place in the history of post punk.

With time, I have come to enjoy the record a lot more, but I still think it’s one of the most inaccessible “major” pop punk albums of its era, which is both to its credit and also a major drawback, certainly for anyone who doesn’t already listen to dub or post punk.

This is uncompromising music and it is pretty damn unique even within the broad spectrum of dub-influenced post punk. I’m not sure I will ever love this record, though, as it is considerably further away from things I like than most contemporary post punk. Still, it’s hard not to view it as a bit of a landmark, both due to its (nearly) singular vision and because it’s one of those post punk records that just explodes your ideas of what popular music could be.

I like this a lot less than many of the albums below it on this list, but I can’t deny it’s place here.

8. David Bowie: Lodger (9/10)

I know this record is viewed by just about everyone as the worst of the “Berlin Trilogy” albums, and the rational side of my brain generally agrees with that assessment. It is arty, less weird and certainly less important than Low and maybe even Heroes too.

But I love it. It’s a catchier set of songs, if only because the instrumentals are gone. But I also love these songs – there are many of my favourite late ’70s Bowie songs here and there aren’t any that I want to skip. Moreover, I love how what was once radical is now subtle – listening to this record is a little bit like listening to the next record in that there are a bunch of accessible songs based, in part, on unconventional music ideas, and full of weird sounds, but which are still extremely accessible.

One of my favourite Bowie records even though I know that, objectively, it’s not his best.

9. Motörhead: Overkill (9/10)

Close to the birth of The New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Read the review of Overkill.

10. James Chance and the Contortions: Buy (9/10)

Take English post punk, add some free jazz, some Pere Ubu and some Magic Band (specifically the slide guitar) and you get this record. New to No Wave (it seems), this is totally not what I thought this was going to sound like. I thought it was going to be Branca-eque de-tuned guitar industrial noise. The surprise is a pleasant one.

This is some energetic stuff that combines the confrontational nature of the most extreme punk of the day, with all that makes English post punk good, with a whole ton of other things I like. It’s pretty wonderful stuff and I regret that it took me this long to get to it.

11. The Pop Group: Y (9/10)

The artier, funkier, British Contortions. Read the review of Y.

12. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (9/10)

This is the point at which Talking Heads’ sound began to shift to the sound that they would inhabit in the 1980s, particularly on the opening track which feels almost entirely alien to the music they were making before. (Perhaps that’s why it was first?) The rest of the record is substantially less of a departure from their earlier records but there’s still a noticeable change in the vibe of everything.

For me, this is a transitional record, caught somewhere between their new wave sound and their more funk- and dance-informed sound of their later records. But I still really, really (really!) like it and some of my favourite Talking Heads songs are here (including “I Zimbra”, “Cities”, “Heaven”).  I just think it’s not quite up to the standard of its predecessor or, even more so, to the record which succeeded it, which is on my short list of best albums of the 1980s.

13. This Heat (9/10)

This is like some unholy combination of ’60s avant rock, early industrial music and the earliest post-punk. And that description really isn’t fair.

Really, there’s little out there like this, especially so stylistically diverse. Usually experimental music is experimental in one or two ways; this manages to run a whole gamut.

Like little else.

14. The Raincoats (9/10)

Naive rock has already been a thing for over a decade before The Raincoats. But nobody (that I know of) had managed to connect the naive approach with the zeitgeist like these gals. And it’s this approach that makes them stand out from the other post-punk bands… because nobody sounds like them. It’s this blend of post-punk and naive rock that makes this record so engaging but also so seemingly unique. And the subversiveness of the lyrics (and that cover…) makes it all better.

15. The Fall: Live at the Witch Trials (9/10)

The Fall arrive fully formed, sounding only like themselves. Read the review of Live at the Witch Trials.

16. Tubeway Army: Replicas (9/10)

An unholy marriage of new wave and synthpop. Read the review of Replicas.

17. The Slits: Cut (9/10)

Punk reggae but with a pretty strong dose of weirdness. Read the review of Cut.

18. B-52s (8/10)

The camp and fun that was missing from punk is here. Read the review of the B-52’s debut album.

19. Oliver Knussen: Coursing (8/10)

This is one of those pieces where the title fits the music as well as you could imagine. Think of something “coursing” through your veins and you get an idea of what this music conjures. A brief but every effective piece.

20. Wire: 154 (8/10)

I’ve mostly gotten over my initial disappointment. I’m sure I’ll come to love this. Read the review of 154.

21. The Police: Reggatta de Blanc (8/10)

I wrote this sometime in the distant past:

It took me a little while to get into this but it is generally pretty solid. Obviously it’s not like other pop-rock albums, as it full of their trademark strange times and rhythms and their sometimes slightly literary lyrics.  My favourite part is probably Andy Summers’ tribute to Neil Young on “Bring on the Night,” where he pretty much becomes him on the guitar solo, which is sweet.

I like this record. It is not my favourite but I generally like all of their albums except Ghost in the Machine.

22. Oliver Knussen: Symphony No. 3 (8/10)

The third symphony is a both brief and bonkers. It’s so brief I’m not sure that it really qualifies as a symphony in a traditional sense, except that it’s a three movement work for orchestra.It’s a lively and fun piece full of inventive moments barely held together.

23. Henryk Gorecki: “Szeroka Woda” (8/10)

“Broad Waters” is the only piece of Gorecki’s choral music I have heard with any real forward movement, with one movement practically feeling like a march in comparison. But things settle down. Like the “Wislo,” this has much more of a “song” feel than a religious service feel. Not sure if it’s based on anything like that, though.

24. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Armed Forces (8/10)

It’s slightly overproduced but this actually sort of makes it fit in with what was going on in the world. Costello is more biting here (and more cohesive) which appeals to me. It lets me forgive some of the more bizarre flourishes. Like the past one, it feels like a step forward and a step back at the same time, which is okay I guess. It’s solid again but I still can’t see any of these as masterpieces.

25. XTC: Drums and Wires (8/10)

As American-sounding as any British band from the era that I’ve ever heard. Read the review of Drums and Wires.

26. The Jam: Setting Sons (8/10)

This is apparently an abandoned concept album. That wasn’t very apparent to me, before I read that somewhere online, but that could just be because I’m not paying attention.

The songs are strong again and the sonic palette is ever expanding (compared to their previous albums).

This is very well done but remains just not my thing.

Also, I detect a Bowie imitation creeping in.

27. Gary Numan: The Pleasure Principle (7/10)

Somewhere between New Wave and Synthpop. Read the review of The Pleasure Principle.

28. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Join Hands (7/10)

A 14 minute track away from being one of the seminal early post punk records. Read the review of Join Hands.

29. Mauricio Kagel: Vox Humana? (7/10)

Listening to Kagel’s work, rather than watching it, is a bit of a problem, because Kagel’s work is often “theatrical” not just in the sense of being influenced by the theatre, but of having the musicians act out parts. Listening to the music online you miss that aspect. (Something big definitely happens 10 minutes in, when there is a giant scream.) That being said…

This piece sure reminds me of Berio at his most theatrical (in a good way). It is about a decade older than some of Berio’s craziest stuff, and so I must recognize that it’s not quite as daring, just because Berio was doing crazy shit like this in the ’60s. But it’s still my kind of bonkers “new music,” wherein the rules are thrown out the window.

30. Simple Minds: Real to Real Cacophony (7/10)

A little too inconsistent to be one of the classics of the year. Read the review of Real to Real Cacophony.

3`. Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (7/10)

No, this is not what experimental music sounds like. Yes, this is a good album. Read the review of Tusk.

31. Yellow Magic Orchestra: Solid State Survivor (7*/10)

I don’t really know where to rank this. Read the review of Solid State Survivor.

32. Frank Zappa: Joe’s Garage (7/10)

So insanely over-long I actually decided not to listen to it again for my podcast. There’s plenty of good stuff here, but the entire thing is nearly 2 hours long, and so much of that is guitar solos, and so many of those guitar solos are in Acts 2 and 3.

33. Terry Allen: Lubbock (On Everything) (7/10)

Some folks will tell you that this is one of the Great Country Albums of All Time. I don’t know if it’s because I don’t think the songs are quite there, or because I secretly prefer country rock and alt country to traditional country, but I don’t really hear it.

What I do hear is a lot of songs (a lot of songs) that gently mock life in Texas in the ’70s. Sometimes they’re funny, sometimes they’re more corny. But for the most part, this is pretty straight forward country music that features reasonably clever and compelling lyrics, but no obvious standards (to my ears) and music that just isn’t risky enough for me to love it in spite of the lack of truly classic songs.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I guess I wasn’t expecting something as traditional and safe as this.

It’s alright but I don’t think it’s a classic.

34. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (7/10)

I think this is probably pretty good. Read the review of Bad Girls.

35. Iggy Pop: New Values (7/10)

The beginning of Pop’s post-Bowie career. Read the review of New Values.

36. Robert Fripp: Exposure (7/10)

37. Joni Mitchell: Mingus (7?/10)

38. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (7/10)

Heartland rock with an actual edge. Read the review of Damn the Torpedoes.

39. Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Live Rust (7?/10)

Is this really necessary?

40. Marianne Faithful: Broken English (6/10)

Don’t really get the big deal. I think it was a compelling narrative at the time. Read the review of Broken English.

41. Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (6/10)

Just not my thing. Read the review of Off the Wall.

42. Supertramp: Breakfast in America (6/10)

The pianos date it but, otherwise, pretty solid vaguely arty, vaguely progressive, jazzy pop. Read the review of Breakfast in America.

43. Led Zeppelin: In Through the Out Door (6/10)

Synths shouldn’t replace guitars, no matter how much I like JPJ.

44. The Cars: Candy-O (6/10)

Once again, it’s power pop and arena rock posing as new wave, but it’s a least a little weirder than their debut, so that’s something. Read the review of Candy-O.

45. Electric Light Orchestra: Discovery (5/10)

Well, it’s catchy. Read the review of Discovery.

46. Van Halen II (5/10)

I do not like this band. Read the review of Van Halen II.

Not Ranked:

Compilations, archival releases and new performances of old music:

Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach (10/10)

I am a very big fan of John Adams’ Nixon in China from pretty much the moment I heard it. It seemed impossible to me that two seemingly diametrically opposed styles of music could be merged seamlessly. It’s safe to say it changed my (musical) life.

That experience is always shocking (in a wonderful way) to me, especially as I get older. I have been going out of my way to find supposed major events and touchstones in music history for about 15 years now, and every so often – sometimes every few months, sometimes less than once a year – I find something that I cannot believe I didn’t hear until I was [insert age here]. My life prior to listening to the thing now seems incomplete. That’s how I felt with Nixon in China. And that’s how I feel about Einstein on the Beach, another supposed minimalist opera.

Read the review.

Berliner Philharmonic, Von Stade, Stilwell, Denize, Van Dam, Raimondi, Von Karajan: Pelleas et Melisande by Claude Debussy (9/10)

Though I am growing in familiarity with late 19th / early 20th century “art” music, I am still not there yet. So it is very hard for me to judge something like this, Debussy’s only completed opera, especially as it relates to other performances of the same work. So forget about that part.

This is like anti-opera, in some ways. It feels as outside the tradition (to my ears anyway) as the “minimalist” American operas of the late 20th century which shouldn’t make any sense but somehow do.

But it takes effort for me to get there. Because to my ears initially it sounds like nothing out of the ordinary. I have to think really hard about what an opera from 1875 would sound like before I go “oh shit”…or something to that effect.

But the more I listen to opera, the more I come to see how revolutionary this one is. Though I don’t know enough to say, this feels like such a crucial moment in the history of opera that much of the revolutionary opera of the 20th century owes its existence to Claude Debussy, on account of this work. But then I really don’t know what I’m talking about.

Bolshoi National Orchestra: Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian (6/10)

Read the review.


James Brown: “It’s Too Funky in Here” (??/10)

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