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The ABCs of 1979 from Gregory Isaacs to the Kendalls

1.  Gregory Isaacs: “Soon Forward” (Front Line). “Reggae crooner” ranks right up there with “speeding in a school zone” or “the test came back positive” for phrases I’d rather not hear. Isaacs should have covered the Kink’s “I Go to Sleep,” because I sure did. Grade: C+

2.  The Isley Brothers: “Winner Takes All” (T-Neck Records). Nothing wrong with the funky/sexy opener, “I Wanna Be With You” went #1 R&B without even touching the pop Hot 100 chart. However, the “winner” quotient is pretty small and I can’t imagine who was clamoring for a double studio album by The Isley Brothers in 1979. Grade: C+

3.  Joe Jackson: “Look Sharp!” (A&M). “Is She Really Going Out with Him?”(an Essential Cut) is a new wave era classic that smartly winks back at the girl group era. Elsewhere, lots of sarcasm, upbeat tempos, a stab at reggae drenched in lyrical cynicism. The driving momentum of the music meshes well with Jackson’s sneering attitude – think of him as the prep school version of Johnny Rotten. Grade: B+

4.  Joe Jackson: “I’m the Man” (A&M). On this album, Jackson sounded like a poor man’s Elvis Costello and by comparison the hooks and words are much less potent than the real deal. This is a crafty/chippy effort and a solid display of angry young man energy, but nothing pulls me in like his best singles do. Grade: B-

5.  Michael Jackson: “Off the Wall” (Epic). “Off the Wall,” “Rock with You,” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” are peak MJ/Essential Cuts, some of the most definitive music of its era. Despite contributions from Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Louis Johnson (of the Brothers Johnson), and Patti Austin, everything else is exceptionally well produced filler. Grade: A-

6.  Millie Jackson: “Live & Uncensored” (Spring). Millie Jackson had a daily radio gig in Dallas in the early 2010s, but she lived in Atlanta. She simply called in daily and said whatever was on her mind. It was so casual, I kept waiting to hear a toilet flush. On this album, Millie raps about her sexual needs, soap opera culture, and conducts the “Phuck U Symphony.” She also covers Rod Stewart, Randy Vanwarmer, Toto, Mac Davis, the Stylistics, and Kenny Rogers on what is essentially a good comedy record. The Rusty Warren void had been successfully filled. Grade: B+

7.  Millie Jackson and Isaac Hayes: “Royal Rappin’s” (Spring). These two voices blend like mayonnaise and chili. The Foreigner (“Feels Like the First Time”), Anne Murray (“You Needed Me”), and Peter McCann (“Do You Wanna Make Love”) covers are surreal. This is the soul equivalent of a Conway/Loretta album bashed out in a few days, but Nashville had a better assembly line. As bad records go, a really interesting one. Grade: C+

8.  Millie Jackson: “A Moment’s Pleasure” (Spring). Millie was shoveling out the product in 1979, a double live set (“Live & Uncensored”), a duet album with Isaac Hayes (“Royal Rappin’s”), and this studio release. The studio environment resulted in a disciplined effort, which in some ways is both a positive and negative. Grade: B

9.  The Jam: “Setting Sons” (Polydor). The Jam’s fourth album in two years shows a lack of material, the ten songs cover slightly over 30 minutes including a completely unnecessary cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave.” Still, this band was tighter than a banker’s wallet and few anthems hit the bullseye as squarely as the Essential Cut “Eton Rifles.” Grade: B+

10.  Rick James: “Bustin’ Out of L7” (Gordy). For a pothead, Rick James was an energetic guy and he reached the R&B Top Ten in 1979 with “Bustin’ Out (On Funk),” a heavily P-Funk influenced opener. James hadn’t quite refined his “punk funk” sound, but I enjoy how he projects being more drugged out than your average Pink Floyd fan. Grade: B-

11.  Garland Jeffreys: “American Boy and Girl” (A&M). This album is out of print, so Jeffreys released an acoustic version on iTunes in 2023. YouTube is your friend for the 1979 release. You root for Jeffreys because he’s obviously intelligent and puts so much care into his work. Herb Alpert contributes a hysterical “drunken sax” to the title track. Regarding arrangements, Jeffreys relied too much on traditional reggae music and musically there’s much more here to be admired than enjoyed. Grade: B

12.  David Johansen: “In Style” (Blue Sky). This is some weird shit. Johansen jumped into dance music with disco strings and Village People style background vocals on “Melody,” the opening track. He went into soft jazz territory on “Big City.” He used a Giorgio Moroder influenced rhythm track on “Swaheto Woman.” Elsewhere, he trotted out some NY Dolls style rockers and closed with a long, overblown angst ballad. Not good, but not boring. Grade: B-

13.  Linton Kwesi Johnson: “Forces of Victory” (Island). A Jamaican born, U.K. raised poet, Johnson sings/talks in a cadence we would most likely label as rap today over danceable reggae music. I’m sure there are plenty of lyrics about struggle and independence and righteousness, not to mention “viktry” on this album. “Want Fi Goh Rave” has a nice, swinging groove and “Fite Dem Back” is the rare reggae song that advocates smashing in the brains of fascists – over a sweet, lilting rhythm. Grade: B+

14.  The Jones Girls: “The Jones Girls” (Philadelphia International). No relations to George, the Jones Girls were a Detroit based vocal trio who specialized in MOR soul. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff have writing credits on three of the tracks, including the Top 5 R&B hit “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else.” This record contains a lot of the gliding strings, punctuating horns, and pumping bass that are a staple of Philly soul records. However, there is a difference between singing well and having vocal personality. Grade: C+

15.  George Jones: “My Very Special Guests” (Epic). George Jones was in terrible physical condition during the late 1970s, requiring over a year’s worth of recording sessions for producer Billy Sherrill to get acceptable vocals from everyone’s favorite self-destructive country singer for this album of duets. Willie Nelson and George do a winning version of “I Gotta Get Drunk” and Pop and Mavis Staples sound right at home on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This is a record filled with minor pleasures. Essential Cut: “Stranger in the House” with soon to be country artist Elvis Costello. Grade: B+

16.  Rickie Lee Jones: “Rickie Lee Jones” (Warner Bros.). Rickie Lee Jones won the 1980 Grammy for Best New Artist and went Top Five pop with the contagious Essential Cut “Chuck E.’s in Love.” This is record with a foundation of tame L.A. studio rock and topped with confessional, bohemian singer/songwriter angst/hipster attitude. It sounds smart and serious, but a few more hooks would have helped. Grade: B-

17.  Joy Division: “Unknown Pleasures” (Factory). Gothic dance music defined by the depressed lead singer who committed suicide less than a year after this album was released. Those vocals aren’t a fun listen. Despite how influential this music may have been, I prefer New Order by a ratio of about a million to one. Essential Cut: “Transmission,” where the forward momentum of the music offsets the general gloom. Grade: C+

18.  Journey: “Evolution” (Columbia). Bands like Journey exist so people who like Debby Boone can pretend that they also like “rock ‘n’ roll.” Steve Perry always sang with the conviction of a man who found that music got in the way of his sock sorting habit. Grade: D+

19.  Judas Priest: “Unleashed in the East” (Columbia). Record in Tokyo, the title is almost as nifty as “Intensities in Ten City.” Lots of proto speed metal on this album and there have been few singers as natural in the genre as Rob Halford. Joan Baez must have been mystified when the royalty checks came in for their cover of “Diamonds and Rust.” As performances these are excellent (the “live” aspect has come under question), but I preferred their later work in terms of songwriting. Grade: B+

20.  The Kendalls: “Just Like Real People” (Ovation). Jeannie Kendall worked hard to try to imitate Dolly’s phrasing on the Top Ten country hit “I Had a Lovely Time” and she sang her pea picking heart out on “I’m Coming Down Lonely.” This record feels more authentic than hand me down jeans and wood paneling. However, at times the production values are abysmal. Grade: B-

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