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The ABCs of 1979 from James Taylor to Loudon Wainwright III

1.  James Taylor: “Flag” (Columbia). The Lester Bangs piece “James Taylor Marked for Death” probably unduly biased me against Taylor’s soft rock sound for decades. He had no natural feel for upbeat material, on this record he adds a minute and a half to “Day Tripper” while sucking the life out of the song. “Millworker” hits that pretty yet pensive mood that is Taylor’s only natural gift. The hit cover of “Up on the Roof” is fine but no substitute for the Drifters. Also, Peter Asher’s highly processed, L.A. studio production was a solid argument for the existence of punk rock. Grade: C+

2.  Bram Tchaikovsky: “Strange Man Changed Man” (Polydor). Can’t really review this one since it’s only available on YouTube and the sound quality isn’t optimal. I will say that many people think of “Girl of My Dreams” as a power pop classic. I am not one of those people. Grade: Inconclusive.

3.  Thin Lizzy: “Black Rose: A Rock Legend” (Warner Bros.). Thin Lizzy’s melodic twin lead guitar sound was always a kick and they were still homeland hit makers in 1979 – “Do Anything You Want to Do,” “Alibi,” and “Sarah” all went Top 40 in Ireland and the U.K. There’s a striking difference in the commercial sound of the singles and the dark edges on the rest of the album. “Sarah,” a mid-tempo ballad written about Phil Lynott’s daughter is miles away from their traditional sound (which isn’t to say it’s a bad song). I enjoy the production values on this one – lean, crisp, clear rock ‘n’ roll – and Lynott had legit rock star charisma. However, a really good hard rock album has a song or two or three that makes you leap to your radio/stereo/computer to crank up the volume. A fairly good one doesn’t. Grade: B

4.  38 Special: “Rockin’ Into the Night.” This band had a holy Southern Rock connection with lead singer Donnie Van Zant being the brother of Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant. The Almost Essential Cut “Rockin’ into the Night” just missed the Top 40 and set a foundation for the band’s future success. The Southern rock genre exercises (e.g., “Turn It On”) aren’t bad and “Stone Cold Believer” has a solid hook. Elsewhere, everything from the singing to the musicianship to the production, is neither embarrassing nor noteworthy. Grade: B-

5.  This Heat: “This Heat” (Piano UK). Toss in “influential” with “post punk” and song titles like “Diet of Worms” and you might be able to run off your unwanted roommate or neighbor if you can make it through three tracks. Mood music for moods you never want to have. Grade: C-

6.  Throbbing Gristle: “20 Jazz Funk Greats” (Industrial). This gloomy, experimental electro-pop record is a highly acclaimed effort (especially by Pitchfork), but by the time I get to the song that sounds like a swarm of flies, I’m ready for the Village People. “Hot on the Heels of Love” is the liveliest track, but it’s also an obvious rewrite of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” I’m not sure what was so groundbreaking about imitating Giorgio Moroder, but I never hated disco to begin with. Grade: C+

7.  Tin Huey: “Contents Dislodged During Shipment” (Warner Bros.). These Ohio art rockers kick off this album with a cover of “I’m a Believer” that feels like it splits the difference between salute and satire. This is a decidedly playful effort with song titles like “I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts” and “Puppet Wipes.” Instrumentation includes bird calls and duck calls. If you feel the sweet spot for popular music falls somewhere between Pere Ubu and Frank Zappa and NRBQ, you might dig these guys. It all I feels a bit too arch and self-congratulatory to me, but I bet they tore up some Akron clubs. Grade: B

8.  TKO: “Let It Roll” (Infinity). Chronologically, after the Sonics and Jimi Hendrix and before Nirvana and Pearl Jam, TKO developed an AOR sound in Seattle, Washington. Imagine AC/DC without the huge sing along choruses or Foreigner without the melodic sensibility. Or, better yet, don’t. Grade: C

9.  Toto: “Hydra” (Columbia). Toto’s backstory is well known, a collection of studio ringers who formed their own band and had immediate success in 1978 with the Top Ten single “Hold the Line.” On the “Hydra” album, there’s a lot of pretentious prog rock dynamics mixed in with Billy Joel style piano pop. Columbia released four singles from this album and three didn’t make the Top 100. The sci-fi inspired “99” was the only hit and the best part about that song is that it makes me think about Barbara Feldon. Grade: C

10.  Pat Travers: “Live! Go for What You Know” (Polydor).  This is an old-fashioned 1970s live motherhumpin’ guitar rock album with Pat Travers playing the hard rock blues guy and Pat Thrall in the role of young metal hotshot. The band is impressive, including metal stalwart Tommy Aldridge behind the drum kit. However, in a more perfect world, the instrumental break wouldn’t be the highlight of practically every song on the album. Grade: B-

11.  20/20: “20/20” (Portrait). A power pop effort from Okies who followed their dreams to Los Angeles, not even needing a Dust Bowl for inspiration. The Essential Cut is the better-living-through-modern-chemistry number “Yellow Pills.” Musically, these guys had a meatier sound than most bands that get dumped into that power pop graveyard. Besides “Yellow Pills,” “Cheri” and “Out of Time” are excellent efforts, frontloaded toward the beginning of the album. As for the rest of the album, think of how the Knack would have sounded if they had been nice guys. The Knack was an interesting band because they weren’t nice guys. Grade: B

12.  Conway Twitty: “Cross Winds” (MCA). Conway dominated the entire decade of the 1970’s on country radio and this album included three #1 country hits – “Don’t Take It Away,” “I May Never Get to Heaven,” and “Happy Birthday Darlin’.” Twitty always seemed palpably insincere to me, like a slick used car salesman who always knew how to close the deal. He worked his gimmick hard on this album – the spoken word passages, the cracking baritone voice, lots of audio schmaltz. It’s too bad he didn’t hang around long enough to cover Radiohead’s “Creep.” Would have been the perfect fit for him. Grade: C+

13.  Tanya Tucker: “Tear Me Apart” (MCA). This album came from that weird era in the late 1970’s when Tanya’s label was trying to make her a crossover pop/rock star. Mike Chapman, who was working with Blondie and the Knack during this era, produced the album and he penned the non-charting single “Lay Back in the Arms of Someone” with his old pal Nicky Chinn, as well as the title track. Nothing on this album works, but the pseudo-dance version of “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair”) is notable for its “oh no, they did not” strangeness. If anything, this project proves that being a singer with a lot of bad habits doesn’t automatically make you a rock ‘n’ roller. Grade: C

14. The Undertones: “The Undertones” (Sire). Inhabiting a space between the Clash and the Buzzcocks, the Undertones specialized in pop punk songs with teen angst themes. Two different versions of their debut LP were released in the U.K., the second version included the singles “Teenage Kicks” (not included as an Essential Cut since it was released and charted in 1978) and “Get Over You.” This music sounds perpetually young and fresh, like the Beach Boys in 1964. Funny closer, the low-fi “Louie Louis” re-write “Casbah Rock.” Essential Cut: “Get Over You.” Grade: B+

15.  Utopia: “Adventures in Utopia” (Bearsville). Todd Rundgren has said that his production work for Meat Loaf was meant as a spoof of Bruce Springsteen. I’m guessing most of this album is meant to be AOR prog rock satire – its stuffed with ridiculous bombast, unnecessary tempo changes, and complicated arrangements. There is no such thing as “too much” regarding the production. Jesus, this is a hard listen. Grade: C

16.  Van Halen: “Van Halen II” (Warner Bros.). The cover of “You’re No Good” does a good job of displaying the individual parts of Van Halen – DLR’s rock star attitude, the spirited harmonies, Eddie’s educated fingers, the heavy bass drum foundation, but it doesn’t touch Linda Ronstadt or Betty Everett’s versions. “Dance the Night Away” was a perfect pop rock moment for the band and an Essential Cut. “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” has a solid riff and some fine rollercoaster guitar work. As a whole, the album works more based on vocal personality and technical proficiency than on songwriting, with “Beautiful Girls” being the other notable exception to that rule. Grade: B

17.  Various Artists, “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School” (Sire). An uneven compilation of high school themed songs with the winner being the delightful Beach Boys salute/title track (an Essential Cut). The licensed songs from Brownsville Station, Chuck Berry, Alice Cooper, and Todd Rundgren are more at home on their individual best of releases. Grade: B

18.  Tom Verlaine: “Tom Verlaine” (Elektra). As Verlaine’s first post-Television solo outing, this album was treated like a big deal when it was released. Verlaine’s trebly voice over an AOR sound isn’t particularly satisfying and much of the material wasn’t deemed ready for prime time by his influential band. Also, you realize he starts singing about lightning whenever he runs out of lyrical ideas. The best song is the closer “Breakin’ in My Heart,” where Verlaine channels his inner Lou Reed. Grade: B

19.  Village People: “Go West” (Casablanca). “In the Navy” is an ok song and a fantastically funny military ad. The Pet Shop made a joyous anthem out of “Go West.” Everything else is just repeating a formula that probably worked better onstage than on vinyl. Grade: C+

20.  Loudon Wainwright III: “A Live One” (Rounder). Wainwright’s combination of ego and insecurity has always appealed to me in ways that worry my therapist. Both his voice and skin were too thin, and you can’t say this is a live best-of since there’s no “Dead Skunk.” However, you do get the male jerk entitlement manipulation of “Motel Blues,” the hard luck life of “Hollywood Hopeful,” and tales from many bad relationships. Not a lot of musical variety – almost everything is just guitar and vocals – but few people have been more talented and direct about displaying a completely self-serving personality. Grade: B+

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