Music scribes are a list-making species. Like sports buffs, they love nothing more than to argue about the ten-best this and five-most-important that, or which year marked the apex of so-and-so’s career. I intend to continue this dubious tradition by celebrating a year which, despite the embarrassment of musical riches it produced, has never achieved the iconic status it deserves. My choice for the greatest year in rock ‘n’ roll history? No question about it: if your taste runs toward the diverse music that blossomed in the wake of punk, 1979 was the annus mirabilis.
Of course, the official historians tend to regard 1977 as the truly pivotal year for punk and its offshoots, mostly because it marked The Sex Pistols’ high point as musical bomb-throwers and tabloid hobgoblins. Up to then, punk had been a tiny underground scene centered on a few music clubs and clothing boutiques in New York and London—but suddenly, thanks to a few incendiary singles (poetically timed to coincide with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee) and a flurry of four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms on live TV, punk became big news. That relatively few new wave albums came out in 1977 is often forgotten.
In effect, The Sex Pistols were like one of those forest fires which occur naturally, and burn away the dying undergrowth. Destructive as the fires may appear, the forest would choke without them. Similarly, The Pistols’ scorched-earth approach served a useful purpose by clearing some space in the musical landscape and allowing new growth to emerge—most of which had more lasting significance than the Pistols themselves.
A disproportionate amount of this music came out in 1979. I’ve tried to avoid describing this year as “the crest of the new wave,” but have decided to give in; it’s just too apt. To push the aqueous metaphor a bit further: it was as if all the pent-up rage, experimentalism and eccentricity of the 1970s suddenly burst through the floodgates, and we found ourselves awash in astonishing new artists that no record company would have dreamed of signing even a couple of years earlier.
I admit that my view may be tinted a few shades rosier by factors that have nothing to do with music—most notably, that I was at the musically impressionable age of 14, a time when good things were better and bad things were worse than they would ever be again. There’s even a theory floating around that the music we love in our mid-teens is the music that sticks with us for life, and a boatload of neuroscience appears to back it up.
At the same time, it’s hard to accept that all eras are created equal, with exactly the same genius-to-drek ratio. (As a thought experiment, try to make the case that American literature is just as good today as it was in the mid-19th century, when Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe all walked the earth simultaneously.) There really are such things as golden ages—weird efflorescences of creativity that flare up unexpectedly and die down just as quickly—and I’m here to make the case that 1979 was special in a way that transcends nostalgia. It occupied the sweet spot after punk kicked the doors down, but before the rot set in.
Pity the poor music critic who had to compile a Top Ten list that year. Whittling it down to 50 was a grim enough task, even though I limited myself strictly to post-punk, new wave, and the like. I didn’t even attempt to include important albums released that year by mainstream rock acts like Tom Petty (Damn the Torpedoes), Pink Floyd (The Wall), and Neil Young (Rust Never Sleeps)—though I did include a few older artists like David Bowie, Marianne Faithfull, John Cale, and The Residents, who were either spiritual forebears of the new wave or fellow travellers.
Less than a third of these albums troubled the domestic charts to any significant degree, and a fair number of them weren’t even released in the U.S. In contrast to the ‘60s, when even a raspy-throated and cantankerous artiste like Bob Dylan could have hit records, the post-punk era marked a turning point where the “popular” became more or less separated from the “good.” For the next decade, the latter-day equivalents of the pioneering ‘50s and ‘60s rockers had to be content with small venues and limited airplay on college radio stations, while the mainstream airwaves proffered Huey Lewis and the News, Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers covering Lionel Richie, the Ghostbusters theme, and too many spandexed hair-metal buffoons to mention. If cutting-edge music was what you craved, you had to seek it out; it wasn’t going to come to you.
The situation was much different in Britain, where Public Image Ltd.’s dissonant, confrontational, and strangely packaged Metal Box actually made it to #18 on the U.K. album charts. (It’s impossible to exaggerate how impossible this feat would have been in the States, where even a band as accessible as Squeeze was deemed too weird for radio airplay until they added a blue-eyed soul singer and started aping Hall and Oates.)
I tried to moderate the extreme subjectivity of lists like these by including albums widely deemed to be important and influential, even if they don’t number among my personal favorites. Likewise, a few important acts like Patti Smith and Siouxsie and the Banshees were left off the list because their 1979 releases (Wave and Join Hands, respectively) don’t measure up to their best work.
Both Clash albums are borderline cases. London Calling’s stateside release was in January 1980, but since it came out in December 1979 in the U.K., it just sneaks in under the wire. (And a good thing, too, since it is probably the album I would use to define rock ‘n’ roll to someone who had never heard it.) The American version of The Clash is actually a compilation made up of tracks from their 1977 British debut and assorted singles from 1977-78, but none of them were released in the U.S. until 1979.
Here then is an alphabetical list of 50 Rocking Humdingers from 1979 (actually a little more, since several artists had two important releases that year). For your listening convenience, each entry includes a link to a representative track from the album in question (or live performance of same). If what I’ve said up to now doesn’t convince you, just cock an ear.
- The B-52s: The B-52s
- The Beat (Paul Collins): The Beat
- Blondie: Eat to the Beat
- The Boomtown Rats: The Fine Art of Surfacing
- David Bowie: Lodger
- The Buzzcocks: A Different Kind of Tension and Singles Going Steady
- John Cale: Live/Sabotage
- The Clash: London Calling and The Clash (U.S. version)
- Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Armed Forces
- The Damned: Machine Gun Etiquette
- Devo: Duty Now for the Future
- The Dickies: The Incredible Shrinking Dickies and Dawn of the Dickies
- Doll By Doll: Remember
- Ian Dury and the Blockheads: Do It Yourself
- Essential Logic: Beat Rhythm News
- Marianne Faithfull: Broken English
- The Fall: Live at the Witch Trials and Dragnet
- Flash and the Pan: Flash and the Pan
- Gang of Four: Entertainment!
- Nina Hagen: Unbehagen
- Joe Jackson: Look Sharp! and I’m the Man
- The Jam: Setting Sons
- Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures
- Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust
- Madness: One Step Beyond
- Magazine: Secondhand Daylight
- Martha and the Muffins: Metro Music
- The Members: At the Chelsea Nightclub
- Gary Numan: Replicas and The Pleasure Principle
- Graham Parker: Squeezing Out Sparks
- Pere Ubu: New Picnic Time
- The Police: Regatta de Blanc
- Iggy Pop: New Values
- The Pop Group: Y
- The Pretenders: The Pretenders
- Public Image Ltd.: Metal Box
- The Raincoats: The Raincoats
- The Residents: Eskimo
- The Slits: Cut
- The Soft Boys: A Can of Bees
- The Specials: The Specials
- Squeeze: Cool for Cats
- Stiff Little Fingers: Inflammable Material
- The Stranglers: The Raven
- Swell Maps: A Trip to Marineville
- Talking Heads: Fear of Music
- Throbbing Gristle: 20 Jazz Funk Greats
- The Undertones: The Undertones
- Wire: 154
- XTC: Drums and Wires