1980 in Music

My music reviews for music released originally in 1980.

 

1. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (10/10)

I don’t know anything about “dance” music. Nothing at all, really. At some point (in the ’70s), “dance” music moved away from other popular music and became its own thing.

But given my ignorance, I’m still willing to say that has to be the most artful and accomplished integration of “dance” music into rock music and, in particular, the sound of Talking Heads – a nervy, antsy, arty sound that, in theory, shouldn’t have meshed at all well with dance music.

They had already been heading this direction, but this is complete integration. The music is not only danceable but it’s insanely complex. (There are a lot of overdubs and loops, to put it mildly.) Repetitive backing vocals and the loops make it accessible while Byrne’s idiosyncratic lyrics and Adrian Belew’s brain-destroying guitar solos make it way more artsy fartsy than probably any other record that tried to get people to dance before it.

Even years after first hearing this, I have heard nothing else like this, within their catalogue or without. It remains an absolute classic. One of the few best albums of the ’80s and utterly inimitable.

 

2. David Bowie: Scary Monsters (10/10)

Full disclosure: this may be my favourite Bowie album, so I have a hard time being objective. (The other contender is Aladdin Sane.) I’m not saying it’s his greatest. There are a number of albums that he’s recorded over the ’70s that probably qualify as “greater.” But it’s pretty damn close.

Whether or not the “Berlin Trilogy” was really as ground-breaking as most of us assume, it was certainly the first time a lot of people were exposed to both indeterminacy in music (especially popular music) – rather than just strict “improvisation” – and it was some of the earliest pop music to be so reliant on emerging electronic instruments. Other people may have got there first, but nobody listened to them. Bowie’s great innovation (as always) was bringing this stuff to the masses.

But of course the “Berlin Trilogy” didn’t really sell. And the thing about this record is that it has the hooks that those albums didn’t. Sure, those records had their share of catchy songs, but also their share of confounding impressions and song fragments. Here, Bowie has integrated his deliberate avant gardism of that period with his knack for writing extremely catchy melodies. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

Sometimes the avant gardism is subtle – such as whatever is wrong with his vocals on the title track – and sometimes it’s not – such as with virtually every note Fripp plays on the record – but because it’s all married to strong melodies, we don’t really notice how difficult the record is (in relation to contemporary pop rock, if not in relation to his “Berlin” records).

The other thing that, I think, is worth admiring, is Bowie’s continued relevance in the face of post-punk and new wave, the former which he had a vital hand in the creation of. Listen to other music (made by much younger musicians) from 1980.  This sounds as forward-thinking, as vital and it still sounds good (i.e. it doesn’t sound dated). (That’s because Bowie was a better songwriter than most of the people he influenced.)

Like everyone says, this is Bowie’s last great album. But, for me, it’s also among his very greatest. It’s perhaps the closest he’s ever come to balancing his desire to be both popular and brave at the same time.

 

3. Dead Kennedys: Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (10/10)

When I first heard this, I acknowledged that it was good – no, great – but something about it didn’t connect. I preferred Black Flag and Minor Threat and didn’t think this was “hardcore” enough or some stupid shit like that.

And, honestly, maybe a decade later, I cannot believe how wrong I was. It was one of those grudging 9/10 ratings I give, where I acknowledge the historical importance of something but don’t like it. I have no idea what I was smoking.

Not only is this record as perfectly “hardcore” as Black Flag or Minor Threat, but it is a lot more purposeful (than Black Flag, anyway). So many of these songs are classics – some of the very best political punk music, nay, political rock music – ever made. “Kill the Poor,” “California Uber Alles,” “Holiday in Cambodia,” and their cover of “Viva Las Vegas” are particular standouts, but the whole record is flawless; one of those records that feels like a “greatest hits” compilation (not that I would know, having never heard another Kennedys record ever).

Reflecting back on the classic hardcore punk records of the early ’80s, I know find myself putting this second only to Minor Threat’s compilation Complete Discography, which shouldn’t really count either.

Incredible.

 

3. Joy Division: Closer (10/10)

I don’t know what’s happened to me. Usually as you get older, you’re supposed to be less and less able to sympathize with the violent emotions of the teen years and young adulthood.

I can’t say that I liked Joy Division when I first heard them many years ago – a combination of not sympathizing with the lyrics and finding them over-hyped compared to a band like, say, Wire – but I tried to respect them. How things have changed.

This is as classic as any British post punk album can get. It’s more difficult and more ambitious than the debut (who the hell would open with “Atrocity Exhibition”? I mean, seriously…) and, arguably, their sound is more fully formed. Every song here is excellent and manages to combine menace, the philosophical confusion of youth (and punk), danceability, and literacy in a combination perhaps never equaled throughout the post punk movement.

Though far from the first post punk band, this second Joy Division album might be one of the genre’s earliest masterpieces. It certainly contains pretty much everything you’d want from the genre, while remaining distinctly Joy Division-esque, and while being arty as fuck.

A true classic. (Young me was an idiot.)

 

5. Bauhaus: In the Flat Field (10/10)

I wrote this about five years ago and I’m not entirely satisfied:

It might be thought of as “goth” now but this is very clearly post-punk, and excellent post-punk at that.  Much creepier/moodier than much of the other 80s stuff labelled goth and a lot more interesting.  Some of the experiments are clearly just things young kids would do but they manage to work despite this.  Great stuff.

I don’t think that really captures this record.
Sure, these guys are indebted to Joy Division; which moody British post punk band wasn’t? But, by harnessing religious imagery as they did, they clearly distinguished themselves from the Joy Division-following heard. And not only that, their approach is significantly more “punk” than so many of these other post punk bands. This is rock music, folks, and that’s not something you can say for all post punk, for sure.

And this is self-produced! And yet, despite that, the little production quirks fit the music perfectly, which is a rare thing for a bunch of kids.

Maybe this will sound crazy to you, but I think this is one of the most perfectly formed debut albums ever. That’s right, ever.

 

6. Henryk Gorecki: Harpsichord Concerto Op. 40 (10/10)

The Harpsichord Concerto is really neat. Two things about it I love: The strings (orchestra as a whole actually) sound like they are a mellotron, practically. I don’t know how they did that but it’s really cool. It practically sounds like a duet between the harpsichord and a cheesy keyboard. (This isn’t true for the entire piece, by any means, but it is true much of the time.) The second thing is how, when the shifts occur (the bars end, or what have you) sometimes either the harpsichord or orchestra is out of time. It’s like a comment on minimalism, or some kind of attempt at moving beyond it. I’m not sure which (maybe it’s both). But it’s cool and it makes it sound like one of the speakers is lagging behind (if the concerto were being broadcast). And it manages to do this while still sounding like part of the tradition – at least in the second unit, which sounds at times, both like classical music and Bernard Herrmann.

Great stuff.

 

7. The Ganelin Trio: Ancora Da Capo (10/10)

Free jazz can seem a little directionless even at the best of times. Now, I realize that is indeed a huge part of the point of being “free” but, in the wrong hands, it can just be hours of seemingly purposeless noodling. That being said, sometimes the very anarchy of free jazz is what is so appealing about it.

On this recording, the Ganelin Trio achieve the remarkable accomplishment of making their free jazz sound directed. In fact this is one of the few times I have listened to a post-1960s free set – a pure one, not one influenced by it – and felt like it was indeed at least partially composed by the credited composer. It feels like there is indeed a direction, an intention; i.e. there is movement towards something. That sense of direction, which is fairly unique within free jazz, combined with the rather non-traditional influences on this particular set – European folk music, I think! – makes this one of the truly great free jazz recordings after what you might call the revolution had basically passed.

Just incredible stuff.

 

8. Motorhead: Ace of Spades (9/10)

Motorhead is the one NWOBHM well you’re not sure whether it’s punk or metal. And though I may prefer Iron Maiden, for example, and have never found myself thinking Motorhead were anywhere near as awesome as so many other people seem to think, it’s impossible to deny this record’s influence on so much (Thrash more than anything, obviously).

Sometimes the punk influence in NWOBHM feels like a marketing gimic or a fad. Not here. Despite Lemmy’s heritage in a prog rock band, this is a band that sounds exactly like you think NWOBHM should sound like: metal musicians playing punk…or is it punk musicians playing metal? Regardless, it’s rock and roll. And it’s one of the best rock and roll records of its era.

 

9. Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (9/10)

There is stigma against drummers-as-composers in rock for good reason; rarely is there a drummer who can actually write good songs (Grant Hart is probably the notable exception), at least without help. I can’t say that I have listened to enough drummer / composers in jazz to know if that is true there as well, but most music I have heard written by drummers in jazz is absurdly drum-focused. So it is more than a little refreshing to be exposed to a drummer who writes really compelling music. His compositions appear to be a compelling mix of free and Raymond Scott (at least “Zoot Suite” does), so that makes me happy. And he is ably supported by a band I am totally unfamiliar with but who seem to be more than merely average jazz sidemen, capable of some really great lines. The Coltrane covers are good too.

 

10. Swells Maps in “Jane from Occupied Europe” (9/10)

This is the kind of thing that reminds you why “post-punk” was initially such a wonderful thing. Much like psychedelia a decade before – albeit in a totally different way – post-punk meant “no rules,” at least before it became conventionalized.

Swell Maps manage to become avant garde by not being anything in the first place. This is a glorious racket full of ideas that sensible people would have thrown away. Ridiculous and lots of fun.

 

11. Iron Maiden (9/10)

My knowledge of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal has been confined to Motorhead and the genre’s influences (primarily Thrash) for most of my metal-listening life. I was aware of its importance but never really had the time to give it much of a chance.

Read the full review.

 

12. The Raincoats (9/10)

The girl group completely deconstructed…destroyed perhaps.

 

13. The Cramps: Songs the Lord Taught Us (9/10)

I always thought the Cramps invented Psychobilly. But I was reading an [i]AV Club[/i] primer the other month and it implied that the Cramps are not pure enough to really be Psychobilly, i.e. they’re too diverse. I find this extraordinarily odd. Not only did the writer (and presumably other people) believe that the Cramps are diverse, but he seemed to believe (along with others) that the best Psychobilly is even less diverse than this record. Bizarre, no?

Read the full review.

 

14. Rush: Permanent Waves (9/10)

Review to come, hopefully.

 

15. Peter Gabriel [Melt] (9/10)

On December 31, 2008, I wrote the following:

This may sound stupid, but this sounds little too much like 1980. They had a good thing going, those Genesis guys…and while I know that version of the band could never have topped The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, neither Gabriel nor the rest of the band ever demonstrated that kind of creativity again. That being said, this record is fine. There are some fine moments. However, the “world music” feels almost flown in compared to everything else. Both Bowie and the Discipline version of Crimson do aspects of this better. I will probably like it more in time. but it just seems somewhat underwhelming at this point.

Read the new review.

 

16. The Police: Zenyatta Mondatta (9/10)

This has fast become my favourite Police album. It’s more sophisticated than their earliest work and it also avoids the whole “Sting’s backing band” of the last stuff. There was some filler on first listen (mostly the instrumentals) but these have grown on me along with the rest. For one thing I think this album proves, as much as any of their albums, that they were perhaps the most literate (without being indecipherable) band – at least the most literate mainstream band – of their era. This music has the energy of their earliest music with the interesting musical ideas which would continue fairly unabated through the remaining albums. And of course they were still a band, which is nice. Pretty classic.

 

17. The Comsat Angels: Waiting for a Miracle (8/10)

Read the review.

 

18. Killing Joke (8/10)

What I said in 2012:

I feel like this is what would happen to Joy Division if they were aware of Throbbing Gristle and wanted to dance…more.  It’s a really bizarre hybrid that somehow manages to work (though it has dated somewhat). If the songwriting was slightly stronger it would be an absolute classic. Still remarkable for its time.

I feel like maybe I overstated the industrial influence just a little bit (though it’s very much there). In fact, this time around, I think I detect more of a hard rock influence in addition to the obvious industrial one and the extraordinarily overpowering Joy Division influence.

This is sort of the missing link between Post Punk (and early industrial) and the noise rock of bands like Big Black. It’s hard to imagine a whole realm of more extreme “heavy” music existing without this record. That being said, it’s still very, very indebted to Joy Division, which is, I guess, why I’m okay with only giving it an 8/10.

 

19. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Kaleidoscope (8/10)

Read the review.

 

20. AC/DC: Back in Black (8/10)

When I was younger I would have described this as the epitome of big dumb rock, and meant it as a compliment. I felt like never before or since had so much good big dumb rock been assembled in one place. Though the album lacks my favourite AC/DC song (“Ride On”) I still feel like it is practically a Greatest Hits record. Add “Dirty Deeds,” “Highway to Hell,” Thunderstruck,” “Ride On” and maybe a few other songs and you don’t really need to hear any other AC/DC. And really, you don’t need to listen to much other big dumb rock. That’s how I felt. Maybe I still feel that way about the music.

When I was 19, I participated in frosh week when I went to university, like so many other people. Unlike (male) students today, I was lucky that social media didn’t exist. So I chanted lots of sexual innuendo, much of it misogynist, and I got drunk and yelled terrible things at CIS refs. And I meant none of it. And I don’t think I thought anyone did.

In the last few years, a number of very brave women (and some less brave men, I suppose) have helped expose what they call “rape culture,” a male mindset where women are implicitly asking for sex even when (especially when?) they are explicitly saying they do not want sex.

I always thought the misogynist frosh chants were funny. I didn’t see the harm. I couldn’t imagine anyone could possibly take them seriously. Unfortunately, knowing what I know now about how human behaviour is shaped, I know this is actually not true. The things people say indeed have an affect on us. (Do not, for a moment, take this as some kind of anti-free speech rant, please. I am a borderline free speech absolutist and would not, for one second, suggest, that the government should end misogyny through legislation such as the highly problematic “hate speech” legislation we have in Canada.)

And though I am nearly 100% sure these chants had virtually zero affect on me they probably had an affect on others. Rather, they probably compounded various other lessons learned earlier in life. I was raised by a feminist single mother and so have certain ideas about how to treat women ingrained in me since childhood. Not every male in Canada was so lucky.

I cannot prove that the chants we yelled and sang at my school promoted “rape culture.” But one of my roommates in second year probably raped a woman (I say ‘probably’ because I can never know, it’s not like I was present) and there was more than one other accusation I was aware of while I was at the school. None of these were handled well, by the school or the community at large.

What the hell does any of this have to do with AC/DC?

Well, these are some misogynist lyrics. And not only that, they are lyrics that could very fairly be perceived as promoting “rape culture,” particularly “Let Me Put My Love Into You.” Even though Johnson sings that he is asking her for permission, he also sings the following:

Don’t you struggle

Don’t you fight

Don’t you worry cause it’s your turn tonight.

It’s not subtle.

Other songs imply women are dogs and whores. There are, of course, a few songs that aren’t about having (possibly non-consensual) sex with women, and those are fine. But the ones that are about sex are alarming. When I was 19, they were funny, albeit dumb funny. Example:

She’s using her head again

She’s using her head

She’s using her head again

I’m justa giving the dog a bone.

But as an adult, they are a lot harder to take.

So I’ve been doing this podcast for a nearly half a year now, and it’s been my first real exposure to hip hop. And the misogyny of hip hop really bothers me. And I’m left asking myself a second question about these lyrics? Why do I think it’s okay for AC/DC to sing about the subjugation of women but I don’t think it’s okay for Ice Cube? (That’s a rhetorical question. I am a white male.)

All of this is to say that, though I feel like this album is, musically, the epitome of big dumb hard rock – and I unconditionally love the break in “Shoot to Thrill” – I don’t feel like I can enjoy this record in good conscience any more. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy it – though you might want to think about why you do – and that doesn’t mean that anything should be done to prevent others from enjoying it, but I’m done with it. Listening to it for the podcast should be my last experience of it. (If I can stick to my principles.)

 

21. Magazine: The Correct Use of Soap (8/10)

Even though Devoto wasn’t in the Buzzcocks for very long, the association isn’t surprising once you hear Magazine. Read the rest of the review.

 

22. X: Los Angeles (8/10)

In 2010 I wrote the following:

On the whole this is a pretty great record and Xene is pretty damn alluring. There is a little too much Manzarek here for my liking. From the liner notes it sounds like the Doors cover and, perhaps, by extension, his involvement, was somehow a condition of the release, which is annoying and also not very “punk.” His organ adds something to their sound which was missing from most punk music of the era, but it is still a little odd that they didn’t seem to know “Soul Kitchen” before they did it.

Read the new review.

23. The Return of The Durutti Column (8/10)

Read the review.

 

24. Slapp Happy: Acnalbasac Noom (8/10)

This was recorded in 1973 but wasn’t released until 1980. Read the review.

 

25. Judas Priest: British Steel (7/10)

I have heard that this was sort of the Black Album of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal – the genre’s more popular and most accessible record to date. I don’t know Judas Priest, and I have no idea how much of a departure this was from earlier Priest albums, but it’s certainly significantly more accessible than Maiden or Motorhead (also, obviously far more “metal”).

Read the rest of the review.

 

 

26. The Jam: Sound Affects (7/10)

Read the review.

 

27. The Clash: Sandinista! (7/10*)

 

28. Weather Report: Night Passage (7/10*)

 

29. Buzzcocks: A Different Kind of Tension (6/10)

 

30. Black Sabbath: Heaven and Hell (6/10)

I’m struggling here, really struggling.

Read the review.

 

31. The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue 4/10)

I don’t know what to do with my first impressions.

Read the review.

 

Not ranked: Grant Green: Gooden’s Corner (9/10)

Gooden’s Corner treads pretty familiar territory as well. But there are unique enough takes on this to make it worthwhile. Green’s playing is consistently inventive (for the time) but perhaps Clark is even more impressive with his off-beat support. And I agree that the sequencing on this set is a little smarter than on Nigeria. Had these albums been released at the time, I would be tempted to rate this highest since it was first, but I have a hard time figuring out which of these two I like better.

 

Not ranked: Grant Green: Nigeria (9/10)

Nigeria is outstanding stuff, despite being full of standards, and makes me rethink everything I’ve previous thought about Green vs. Montgomery. Their version of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” is particularly great and I want to say is the definitive version (I’ve heard). (Green is practically Youngian on it.) It’s shocking to me that this music wasn’t deemed important enough to release at the time. I can’t really figure out why. I’m guessing contract disputes or obscure marketing reasons. This is really great mainstream guitar jazz.

 

Not ranked: Grant Green: Oleo (8/10)

Oleo is probably the weakest of the three Sonny Clark quartet albums, but it’s still pretty great. At first I was tempted to dislike their version of “My Favorite Things” because it wasn’t Coltrane, but I got over that. Green makes it his own. Green also contributes a tune this time (imagine!) and it is one of the highlights.

 

EPs

1. Discharge: “Realities of War”

This is hilariously brief EP (barely the length of a single, really) that tells you everything you need to know about this band: they are fast, angry, loud and brief. I can imagine that someone hearing this for the first time in 1980 might have been a bit bowled over by everything about this.

 

1. Discharge: “Fight Back”

Another EP barely the length of a single, this is more of the same brief intensity: super fast, loud, angry and brief songs that make the punk that came before sound like it wasn’t punk at all.