1979-1980 is the first period of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die…Or Not in which I had heard every record prior to writing the associated essay. In some cases, I was listening to the record for only the second time, but there were no surprises, only disappointments and hasty generalizations.
On the other hand, this period also has the fewest strikethroughs and the highest omission rate of probable Must Hear albums since way back in 1956-66. Spoiler alert: The following blockbuster albums did NOT make the original list, nor will they be discussed as Suggested Alternatives.
Supertramp – Breakfast in America
Bob Dylan – Slow Train Coming
Molly Hatchet – Flirtin’ With Disaster
The Eagles – The Long Run
Queen – The Game
The Clash – Sandinista!
R.E.O. Speedwagon – Hi Infidelity
Billy Joel – Glass Houses
Bruce Springsteen – The River
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band – Against the Wind
Ted Nugent – Scream Dream
Van Halen – II
Van Halen – Women and Children First
Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Now, if you have any knowledge of late 70s – early 80s popular music, a couple of those have to jump out and punch you in the spleen. However, to be honest, I agree with each and every omission. Unfortunately, this is just a shortened list of the albums that weren’t selected. Read on.
Strikethrough indicates what you probably think it does
Green indicates highly recommended listening
Underlined indicates questionable but ultimately acceptable record
Blue bold italic indicates ABSOLUTELY MUST HEAR BEFORE YOU DIE
Note: Suggested alternatives are from the same year as the contested entry unless otherwise indicated. Also, anything in Red generally indicates hazardous material
AC/DC – Highway To Hell (1979)
Ten years ago, my main drug dealer in San Francisco was a woman named Judy who swore on her mother’s grave that she saw AC/DC open for Cheap Trick at the Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1979. And it was the “best rock show” she’d ever seen and AC/DC played “every song from Highway to Hell.”
“Pictures?!?” Judy cried. “Nobody was taking pictures in 1979.”
“No? What were they doing to capture the moment in those days, daguerreotype? I’m pretty sure people had Polaroid cameras by then.”
“Fuck you, I was there.”
“Let’s see a ticket stub.”
“Ticket stub?!? The fuck? I’m going to cut off your courtesy drops if you keep busting my balls like this. Ticket stub,” she snorted, “fuckin’ dick.”
Judy probably wasn’t lying about her attendance at the show, which happened July 10, 1979, but it was the other way around: Cheap Trick opened for AC/DC. And neither band played anything from Highway to Hell, but I think that would have been cool as hell if the bands had switched set lists for a night.
According to the official AC/DC website, setlist.fm, and several other sources, this is the set list from the July 10 show in Omaha.
Bad Boy Boogie
Whole Lotta Rosie
Let There Be Rock
Dog Eat Dog
The interesting bit about the AC/DC set list is they played 9 jams – essentially everything from If You Want Blood, You Got It, which also happened to be the album they were touring to support. The band toured constantly, and their set lists tended to be dominated by whatever record was out at the time. After checking several sources, their sets during this tour tended to be 45-50 minutes. Other songs they played on this particular tour, which is somewhat important, included “High Voltage”, “If You Want Blood”, and occasionally “Highway to Hell”.
Anyway, perhaps the greatest gift of an internet search engine is its ability to settle an argument, or in this case, put some closure on a dispute.
Crusaders – Street Life (1979)
Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Armed Forces (1979)
Fleetwood Mac – Tusk (1979)
OK, I was so excited that the Eagles – The Long Run was not included on the list, that I started crossing off albums in a willy-nilly manner. Therefore, I would entertain arguments in favor of Armed Forces and Tusk. Both have their merits.
Tusk is a perfect example of the Special Double LP Failure Formula: Follow-up your breakthrough record with the most indulgent, overblown double LP anyone has seen or heard since; the kind that makes record company executives say “career suicide.” Think: Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995). Except Mellon Collie didn’t feature the USC Marching Band; not that the Pumpkins couldn’t have spared the expense. And both records were massive hits, which is subjective.
The collective works of Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks are nice additions to the adult contemporary catalog, and if you want to sell shitloads of records, you’d want them in your band. While Fleetwood Mac is hardly the first or only group to release a sprawling, ambitious record just because they could; just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Tusk covers more musical ground than just about any other record in 1979 – a lot of it soft rock territory – but ultimately goes nowhere. Tusk is what happens when the record company writes the band a blank check and says “Don’t fuck it up” while handing the check to the biggest cokehead in the band, i.e. all of them, but mainly Lindsey Buckingham.
Like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the highlights are flooded by the bullshit; other than the title song and Stevie Nicks’ rainy-day, maudlin “Sara”, Tusk is bereft of hits. But in the end, I don’t think anyone involved in the making of Tusk is feeling sorry for the revenue generated by 9 million copies sold to date.
Here’s the caveat. In 2002, Camper Van Beethoven recorded and released a song-for-song remake of Tusk (on Pitch A Tent Records), which is ten times more interesting than the original. I’m not saying it’s a Must Hear, either. Just sayin’. What I’d like to hear is Fleetwood Mac doing Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
Squeeze – Cool For Cats
The Knack – Get the Knack
Devo – Duty Now For the Future
The Who – Quadrophenia
All four of these suggestions could be Must Hear selections. If you were in the mood for a double LP, Quadrophenia is a far better listening experience than Tusk. At least there was a movie explaining why they needed to make a double LP out of it.
Gang Of Four – Entertainment! (1979)
Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle (1979)
Holger Czukay – Movies (1979)
Had to pinch myself at this entry. Really? The bassist from Can merits a solo album You Must Hear? I think not, even if it is basically another Can album.
There’s something cute when non-native English speakers sing in English. It’s especially adorable when it’s a 40-year-old German dude scatting and doot-doot-dooing his way though a bouncy, quasi-disco joint (“Cool in the Pool”). However, Czukay is not nearly so cute when noodling his way through a two-note exercise in relatively ambient but decidedly monotonous semi-jazz music (“Oh Lord, Give Us Money”) and another example of anti-climax in music; something that threatens to happen, but never does. I guess that’s why there’s a cinematic reference in the title?
This Holger Czukay record came to my attention in the mid 00s, on the recommendation of a record store clerk who encouraged my post-art rock explorations. While I balked at the $30 price tag for an obscure, used LP, I shrugged and didn’t want to be put on the spot, so I bought it. Upon the first listen, at the 3-minute mark of the opening track, I said out loud, “Something better happen with this jam or I’m going to be pissed.” Fortunately, the cute German dude started singing again. At the 10-minute mark, shaking my head. By the time the album was over, I was fucking furious. So mad, I wanted to jet down to Amoeba and throttle that kid who recommended it. That was the last time I ever asked a record store clerk for his or her opinion of anything.
No other band epitomized the genre of progressive rock in 1979 as well as Rush. The whole concept of progressive music is that you start off in one place, and end up in another. Progress. Permanent Waves doesn’t sound exactly like the same band that made 2112 (1976), but it’s clearly a step in a more modern direction. Rush was one of the few 70s hard rock bands who didn’t implode upon the emergence of punk and new wave – they adapted. Apparently, that wasn’t an easy trick to perform. Just ask Yes, Marillion, Hawkwind, ELO, Jethro Tull, Foreigner, Genesis or Boston. The general public still wasn’t interested in one-minute guitar solos unless they were really, really good, and served the song, not unlike the solos on “The Spirit of Radio”, “Freewill” and “Jacob’s Ladder”.
Japan – Quiet Life (1979)
Joy Division – Unknown Pleasure (1979)
Marianne Faithfull – Broken English (1979)
Quiet Life is the best Duran Duran album I’ve ever heard. It’s also the weakest of the post-Eno Roxy Music albums. I dunno. Don’t try to tell me that David Sylvian is doing his best Bryan Ferry and I won’t tell you that Simon LeBon is doing his best David Sylvian.
Joy Division is a post-punk Michael Jordan taking-off-from-the-top-of-the-key slam dunk.
I honestly believe that yours truly and the record industry could finally agree on one thing in 1979. It takes a very special woman to make it in rock music. It’s not a feminine sport, even though it’s loaded with queers who took more dick than Pamela Des Barres. Marianne Faithful couldn’t, wouldn’t, shouldn’t ever be a Must Hear; and if you don’t believe me, ask Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Look at her closely; she looks like she was in the Stones, not the other way around. And she made terrible fucking music, too.
Siouxie and the Banshees – Join Hands
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes
Come on Dimery and Co.! You guys really dropped the ball in the late 70s.
Michael Jackson – Off The Wall (1979)
Neil Young With Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979)
Pretenders – Pretenders (1979)
Public Image Ltd – Metal Box (1979)
Off the Wall is the only quasi-disco record I feel vaguely comfortable saying You Must Hear. First of all, M.J. was a dancing fool since who knows when? The Jackson 5 predate disco by at least two years. Anyway, Off the Wall is never going to be duplicated. Enjoy!
Neil Young & Crazy Horse don’t get any better than Rust Never Sleeps.
The Wall was a massive, systemic, and fundamental influence on contemporary American bong culture. The movie is pretty cool, too.
Chrissie Hynde was by no means the first rock front woman, but considering her competition (Pat Benatar, Heart) she was certainly the most vital straight-up rock singer in 1979. The Pretenders is fantastic.
Public Image Ltd. is probably the most anti-jazz band on the entire list. These cats were hardly what you call “proficient” at their instruments, yet they were able to communicate, inspire and confound, nonetheless. And that’s the point. Perhaps this record has grown on me over time, but Metal Box is definitely one of the few double LPs I would be happy to sit though on any given day. To the average listener, it’s going to sound like nonsense; but I implore you to see beyond the poor production and lack of songwriting. There’s truth in here. Find it.
[Note: Metal Box’s original packaging consisted of a metal 16mm film canister embossed with the band’s logo and containing three 12″ 45rpm records; in 1980, the album was reissued as a more traditional double LP gatefold, Second Edition.]
Sister Sledge – We Are Family (1979)
Talking Heads – Fear Of Music (1979)
As I was saying about Fela Kuti. “Cities” may be my favorite Talking Heads jam, but Fear of Music is the weakest of their early work.
The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys
Joe Jackson – Look Sharp!
If 1975 was an odd time to be alive, 1979 was an intriguing and slightly anxious time to be alive. Another three albums that should be Must Hear; but for whatever reason, didn’t rate over Sister Sledge, and a mediocre Talking Heads LP.
[Note: The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys was released in the U.S. as Boys Don’t Cry (with a slightly different song sequence).]
The Clash – London Calling (1979)
The Damned – Machine Gun Etiquette (1979)
The Fall – Live At The Witch Trails (1979)
The Germs – GI (1979)
The Police – Regatta De Blanc (1979)
Wow. OK, so the Germs are arguably one of THE seminal Southern California punk bands. Their regional influence is undeniable. GI is a really tough listen, though.
The Slits – Cut (1979)
The Specials – Specials (1979)
The Undertones – The Undertones (1979)
Cut joins an elite group of potentially life-changing albums You Must Hear Before You Die, but probably wouldn’t unless someone pointed it out and said, “Hey, listen to this fucking Slits record.” First of all, The Slits were an all-female British punk band. How many of those can you name off the top of your head? And how many of them were as good as the Slits? I’m guessing the answers are zero and none.
The Specials represent ska. At some point, you’re going to wonder how we wound up with Barenaked Ladies. Here’s the fertilization of the egg.
The Undertones will forever be associated with the 1978 single “Teenage Kicks”, which isn’t on this album…unless you get the version that was reissued in 1980, or one of several best of compilations. If you want to go with the best of what the band has to offer, The Undertones isn’t it.
AC/DC – Back In Black (1980)
Adam & The Ants – Kings Of The Wild Frontier (1980)
Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebels (1980)
The influence of Van Morrison in popular music seems to have been relegated to a group of insufferable Irish egomaniacs who heard Astral Weeks and said, “I can do better than that.” Just because you wear the costume, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a clown. Likewise, owning a few Motown and Stax records doesn’t make you a soul group.
Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (Melt)
For my money, this is THE Peter Gabriel solo album. I’m looking around and nobody had really reached this level of “art” in a bonafide rock record. “Intruder” features the first use of Phil Collins’ famous “gated drum” sound (heard on “In the Air Tonight”). The distinctive sound was identified via experiments by producer Steve Lillywhite, Phil Collins and Hugh Padgham, in response to Gabriel’s request that Collins and Jerry Marotta not use cymbals on the album’s sessions. The sound has been noted by Public Image Ltd as influencing the sound on their album Flowers of Romance (1981).
Echo & The Bunnymen – Crocodiles (1980)
Tough call here. You should probably hear E&TB, but I’m not convinced this is the record. I’m learning toward a greatest hits collection with these kids. However, the U.S. album version contains a couple of extra jams including “Do It Clean”.
Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden (1980)
Joy Division – Closer (1980)
Judas Priest – British Steel (1980)
Killing Joke – Killing Joke (1980)
Motorhead – Ace Of Spades (1980)
Peter Gabriel – Peter Gabriel (III) (1980)
Can’t really muster an argument against any of these albums, especially Motorhead, but I will say this: Don’t feel obligated to sit through both Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, since their differences are negligible when considering the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). Most of it boils down to cover art and the sexual orientation of the lead singer. Most importantly, the above albums are 100% choogle-free.
Steve Winwood – Arc Of A Diver (1980)
This guy is one of the most talented musicians on the planet. His previous work in Blind Faith, Traffic, and the Spencer Davis Group is undeniable. Arc of a Diver marked Winwood’s re-self-re-invention as the white Stevie Wonder; a musician capable of (and compelled to) playing every instrument himself; and signals the beginning of a prolific and profitable solo career in the adult contemporary format. There were times in Winwood’s career where he rocked; just not after 1977. That said, the album is as well-crafted and produced as any other record made in 1980, i.e. it’s soft rock. Shitty soft rock.
Siouxsie and the Banshees – Kaleidoscope
Get with the Siouxsie program or get out of popular music. This woman and her band paved the way for more than gender. Their impact on music and culture is sublime, but potent. You’re going to hear more about this, I promise.
Talking Heads – Remain In Light (1980)
The Circle Jerks – Group Sex (1980)
The Cramps – Songs The Lord Taught Us (1980)
The Cure – Seventeen Seconds (1980)
I care about you, people. Just wanted to make that clear. For whatever reason, I am deeply invested in your listening choices. Additionally, I see myself as a sort of no-nonsense but compassionate hall monitor in the school of popular music; or perhaps a very strict but wise student advisor, who goads you into making the right kind of music listening choices that will have bearing and consequence in your future. Above all, and again, I can’t say why, it has always bothered me to distraction when people listen to shitty music.
I didn’t have such firm yet benevolent guidance growing up. I learned a lot of stuff the hard way, and I’m here to tell you, it’s not always the best way. Sometimes, it is. Take fire, for instance.
From the time we are born, we are constantly told that fire is hot, and if you fuck around with it, bad things will happen. But nearly every single one of us had to learn the hard way and put our hands over the gas burner, or set little paper fires in a trash can with a lighter you found in the glove compartment of your father’s car, in order to learn first-hand the dangers and results of playing with fire. Once that lesson is learned, it’s hardly ever repeated. Unless you’re a pyro. And then you have real problems.
Granted, it was good to know in advance that flammable activities generally resulted in unfavorable circumstances, but we never quite appreciated the warnings – until we’ve been burned or have burned something to the ground. Capital E-T-C.
On the other hand, there are far more things I didn’t need to learn the hard way, some of which may be genuinely tragic, or at least sad, and of the regrets I have, many could have been avoided if I’d just listened to what someone, usually my parents, had told me.
As a freshman in high school, I joined the radio station, and it was there I met a girl named Annette, a sophomore. She was one of the few “punk-ish” girls in school yet also a star track athlete. Annette was unique in many ways, but what I remember most was her blunt and sometimes brutal honesty, especially when it came to music. She was the first person in life to question my musical tastes, c.g. the first to say, “You’re listening to R.E.O. Speedwagon? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Annette also had an amazing ability to predict what new bands and records you would like, and whether or not you should waste your time listening to them. R.E.M. – Murmur was released in the second semester of 1983, and Annette brought in a copy to the radio station. A kid named Dave had first dibs on the R.E.M. record, and the next day he was ebullient. “This is the best record I’ve ever heard,” he claimed, while handing it off to me. Annette said, “You’re not going to like it. What you should be listening to is this” and handed me a copy of The Cure – Seventeen Seconds.
She was right. Upon first listen in the radio station, I didn’t really dig the R.E.M. record. They sounded like old men; the music was kind of dull. The Cure, on the other hand, were dark, edgy, and kind of creepy, which was starting to be more to my liking. I took Seventeen Seconds home, played it, loved it, played it for my friends, and within a week owned every record the Cure had put out to date. It wasn’t until a year later that another friend turned me on to the Chronic Town EP and I began to appreciate R.E.M. The point is, Annette saved me from learning the hard way.
Music criticism has never been attractive to me, yet I’ve clearly read and written a lot of music criticism over the years. At the same time, I don’t always consider what I do straight-up criticism. It’s more of a critical “appreciationism.” I don’t know that I’ve written an album review in the style of Robert Christigau, Lester Bangs, or Stephen Thomas Erlewine. I’m not even in the Neil Strauss or Jim DeRogatis hemisphere. But on the other hand, I’m not a cattle appraiser who walks into the corral, takes a quick look at the livestock and says, “Some good cows here. And some not so good ones, too.” I’ve milked or branded every cow, steer and bull on the ranch.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about me. If it came down to one of those gun-to-the-head situations, I would say that David Lee Roth era Van Halen (1978-85) is my favorite rock band of all-time. There are several reasons why I would choose them over Cheap Trick, the Beatles, or even the Cure. Most of it has to do with timing. Van Halen hit me at a very specific period; the onset of puberty. Many bands were on the turntable during this time, but none played along to my circumstances. In some ways, Van Halen is the musical equivalent of reaching puberty.
Even though Van Halen is my favorite band, I’m not going to sit here and say that you Must Hear either of the two records they released in 1979-80, Van Halen II (1979) and Women and Children First (1980). You don’t. Those albums could also be called More of the Same and Even More of the Same But Not Quite As Good. Even though I personally love those records, and wish they made a thousand more just like ‘em, that doesn’t make it your best interest to seek these records out, unless, like me, you love DLR era Van Halen. And then I’m preaching to the choir.
So the next time I piss on your favorite band, remember: I piss on mine, too.
The Dead Kennedys – Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables (1980)
It’s impossible to say how much you know about punk rock. It’s also impossible to estimate how punk rock – specifically Never Mind the Bollocks – changed the landscape of popular music. The Dead Kennedys were by far the most overtly political band since the MC5, and these kids took themselves seriously. Fortunately, their cross-pollination of psycho-surf rock and topical soapboxing made for enjoyable toe-tapping, skateboarding and whatnot. Haha. Just kidding. This shit is better than Led Zeppelin.
The Jam – Sound Affects (1980)
Aw, man. No. It isn’t necessary. I mean…yes, it is. Dammit! So few decent bands were influenced by the Jam precisely because they had a monopoly on the Kinks/Who cover band market. The Jam traveled from town to town via Vespa scooter, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But behind closed doors, they listened to the Steve Miller Band and Cliff Richard. Do you like Oasis? If yes, this is a Must Hear. If no, good for you and have a nice day.
Ah, fuck me. “That’s Entertainment” is one of the best songs in which you’ll never know what the fuck the dude is talking about without consulting Cliff’s Notes.
Holy Christ, is Underwater Moonlight one of the most under-appreciated, under-rated, under-everything albums of the era? Yes. It is. And it’s also one of the first neo-psychedelic records, if not the most influential. R.E.M., the Replacements, Minutemen, and the Pixies were all over the Soft Boys, a band who also believed the best part of Pink Floyd was Syd Barrett. Meanwhile, L.A.’s Paisley Underground was raised on a steady diet of this album (and their debut, A Can of Bees). Drop the needle on “I Wanna Destroy You”. Thank me later.
Of course, the band broke up after making Underwater. Main songwriter Robyn Hitchcock went on to greater solo success, and we may hear one of his records, while bassist Kimberly Rew formed Katrina and the Waves (“Walking On Sunshine”), which we won’t be listening now or anytime in the foreseeable future.
It’s unbelievable that the official 1001 Albums list leaves this one off. Inconceivable. Boy is absolutely one of the most important records of the era, and a hell of a way to start the decade.
The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)
More post-punk, new wave. Not essential, but not bad. There are some extremely catchy jams on this record, and some queasy-cheesy moments, too; but I can’t think of a time when I’ve said, “I’m in the mood for the Teardrop Explodes”. However, Kilimanjaro does explain Simple Minds, the Fixx, and Jane’s Addiction, believe it or not. This is just one more branch on the tree. Oh, and Julian Cope. Some people think he’s something special.
Ozzy Osbourne – Blizzard of Ozz
The Undertones – Hypnotized (1980)
You know how Gatorade has several different colors, and the colors imply a particular flavor? Red = fruit punch. Purple = grape. Yellow = lemon-lime. But there’s really nothing fruity or punchy about Red Gatorade. It’s a confounding, salty-sweet beverage that leaves a pinkish ring around your mouth. Purple Gatorade has the slightest, wispiest hint of grape juice. Yellow has as much lemon-lime as I do patience for bad manners.
Of course, Gatorade has official flavor names for these beverages, but when someone makes a run to 7-11, you never say, “Hey, grab me a grape Gatorade.” You say, “Grab me a Purple Gatorade.”
The English Beat – I Just Can’t Stop It
By far, light years, the best record of 1980. Sexy, sharp, accessible; undiminished by time.
Tom Waits – Heartattack And Vine (1980)
UB40 – Signing Off (1980)
Look, if you’re at an event and some guy or girl starts talking about reggae music, mention Signing Off and wait for the response. If they say, “Phenomenal record”, then you can be friends. If they say, “‘Red, Red Wine’ is one of my favorite songs ever!” You know they can’t be trusted. UB40 obviously didn’t invent punk reggae, but they did it better than anyone in 1980.