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The ABCs of 1979 from Leonard Cohen to Ian Dury

1.  Leonard Cohen: “Recent Songs” (Columbia). Cohen’s iconic status was hard earned and deserved but this is over fifty minutes of music that is almost all tortoise paced. It isn’t like a slow-motion car wreck. It’s like a slow-motion IRS audit. Grade: C+

2.  Cold Chisel: “Breakfast at Sweethearts” (Atlantic). Aussie rock star Jimmy Barnes kind of has that heartland Bob Seger/John Mellencamp vibe and the band Cold Chisel has been lumped into that “pub rock” graveyard. They do remind me a bit of Graham Parker’s Rumour, which is a nice thing to be reminded of. Lots of solid rockers on this album with “Astrid (Goodbye Astrid)” being the highlight. They even get their funky island groove on with the reggae inspired titled track. A fun outing. Grade: B+

3.  Commodores: “Midnight Magic” (Motown). Generic dance music, which tried to split the difference between disco and funk. Plus, Lionel Richie imitated Billy Joel badly (“Still”) and he gave the world the MOR version of “Free Bird (“Sail On”). Please kill me. Grade: C-

4.  Con Funk Shun: “Candy” (Mercury). Con Funk Shun formed in northern California as a high school act in 1969, migrated to Memphis, and released four consecutive gold albums from 1977 to 1980. Their 1979 single “Chase Me” went Top Five R&B but was a bit too…urban for pop radio. The upbeat numbers, especially “Candy,” are thoroughly enjoyable, highlighting an excellent horn section. They even tried to write a power ballad with “(Let Me Put) Love on Your Mind.” I mean, they really tried. Grade: B-

5.  John Conlee: “Forever” (MCA). Conlee was very much a traditionalist on this outing – nasal voice, plunky piano, swelling choruses with female backing vocalists. This album had two Top Ten country hits – “Before My Time” and “Baby, You’re Something.” However, if you didn’t know they were hits, you certainly wouldn’t pick them out of a police lineup. There’s a lot of self-pity on this record and when you hear the opening notes of his cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” you start looking for the karaoke machine. Grade: C

6.  The Contortions: “Buy” (ZE). As you know, James White/James Chance was a leader in New York’s no wave/avant funk/punk jazz/dance punk movement. This record is filled with more opportunities to make interesting sounds than actual songs, although sometimes interesting sounds are their own reward. The Contortions made dance music for a very white alien dance floor. Grade: B-

7.  Ry Cooder: “Bop Till You Drop” (Warner Bros.). Never confused with J.P. Richardson, Ry Cooder covered a nine rock and soul tunes on “Bop Till You Drop,” with Elvis Presley’s “Little Sister” being the most famous. This is a well-meaning effort, but Cooder isn’t a strong enough vocalist to dig into the emotions of the songs and the L.A. studio playing is much too polite to ever find a solid groove. Pleasant background music with more implied gravitas than direct impact. Grade: B-

8.  Elvis Costello: “Armed Forces” (Columbia). Heartbreak, anger, black humor, disgust, hope – “Armed Forces” is a hook filled smorgasbord of human emotions. The peaks, namely the Essential Cuts: “Accidents Will Happen, “Oliver’s Army,” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” are epic. However, on the lesser songs, the writing is too punny for its own good. Grade: A-

9.  John Cougar: “John Cougar” (Riva). You get Van Morrison influenced white boy R&B and Bruce Springsteen inspired melodrama on Mellencamp’s third album, the one where his name changed from “Johnny Cougar” to “John Cougar.” The only thing that works on this record is the casual sexism of “I Need a Lover,” with its dramatic two and half minute intro. The Coug used to sing in concert “I need a lover…that’ll sit on my face!” Could be painful, Johnny. Was there a weight limit? Grade: C+

10.  Cowboys International: “The Original Sin” (Virgin). Splitting the difference between Public Image Ltd. and synth-pop, “Point Boots” kicks off this album with great promise. Keith Levene played guitar on “Wish,” the electronic kick out the jams final cut. If it just weren’t for the other nine songs, this would be an excellent album. Grade: C+

11.  The Cure: “Three Imaginary Boys” (Fiction). Goth-pop legends must start somewhere, and these blokes started with a rather thin sounding band with more ideas for songs than songs. Their debut album didn’t include their best 1970’s outing, “Killing an Arab.” Which was, you know, all about irony. Grade: B-

12.  The Crusaders: “Street Life” (MCA). The Crusaders were a jazz outfit whose origins go way back to the mid-1950s in Houston. They hit the Top 40 in 1979 with the Almost Essential disco meets the mean streets themed “Street Life,” a song that included vocals from Randy Crawford (no relation). On the jazz spectrum, this is more easy listening than, say, bebop or fusion, although it does include some fine saxophone solo spots. However, way too much of this album sounds like the equivalent of Firefall, without lyrics, from the other side of the tracks. Grade B

13.  The Damned: “Machine Gun Etiquette” (Chiswick). The Damned never made any commercial inroads in the U.S. “Love Song,” the raving lead track on “Machine Gun Etiquette” was a Top 20 U.K. hit and would have never been played in the U.S. At times, this LP sounds like hardcore mixed with Gary Glitter. Also, dig the very Nuggets-like organ solo on “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today.” A smart, interesting album that effectively avoids being a one-dimensional punk effort. Grade: B+

14.  The Charlie Daniels Band: “Million Mile Reflections” (Epic). Charlie got his signature hit with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and surrounded it with lame attempts at country funk (“Passing Lane”), country disco (“Blue Star”), standard issue Southern boogie (“Jitterbug”), a psychedelic rock homage (“Behind Your Eyes”), stilted melodrama (“Reflections”), and other atrocities. He remains proof that you can accomplish quite a bit if you are utterly shameless. Essential Song: “The Debbil.” Grade: C

15.  Cory Daye: “Cory and Me” (New York International). Female vocalist Cory Daye broke away from Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band to record a solo disco album that sounded strongly like Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band. (Hey, splitting the check works better when paying than receiving). This is a pleasant, upbeat, well produced dance record. Probably sounded fabulous after a few bumps of cocaine at Studio 54. Grade: B

16.  Devo: “Duty Now for the Future” (Warner Brothers). As a sucker for hooks, I dig Devo more than most sane people, but this album sounds largely like a bunch of outtakes/potential B-sides. A remarkably bad effort for band’s second major label effort. Grade: C

17.  Dickies: “The Incredible Shrinking Dickies” (A&M). Despite the major label support, the world wasn’t ready for cartoon punk in 1979. This is a one-dimensional joke band that people tend to either love or hate. Best song, the cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” which proves that Ozzy Osbourne was much more of a punk, and a singer, than Leonard Graves Phillips. Grade: C

18.  Dire Straits: “Communique” (Warner Brothers). This is the last Dire Straits album to include David Knopfler. I’m guessing that Mark Knopfler chose to write an album so boring that even his own brother couldn’t face the possibility of performing this material in concert. “Lady Writer” is ok, especially when it teases that it’s going to morph into “Sultans of Swing.” Grade: C+

19.  Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band: “James Monroe H.S. Presents Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington” (Elektra). August Darnell’s pre-rock ‘n’ roll, big band nostalgia stopped working because the melodies couldn’t match the seductive production values. Having interesting ideas doesn’t automatically translate into worthwhile music. Grade: B

20.  Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Do It Yourself” (Epic). Ian Dury never made life easy on anyone, making decisions like not putting his U.K. #1 single “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”  on a proper album and not releasing any singles from the “Do It Yourself,” even though “Inbetweenies” would have been surefire follow-up hit. The lesson from the “Do It Yourself” album? The Blockheads were a good dance band. However, they weren’t Chic. Or Parliament. Grade: B

Bonus Review:

The Brides of Funkenstein: “Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy” (Atlantic). George Clinton was enjoying heaps of artistic latitude in the late 1970s, including producing this vocal trio backed by the P-Funk army. Check out the stats for this album – and unidentified horn section, seven guitarists, five bassists, five keyboardists, six credits for drum/percussion, five backing vocalists, three producers (with Clinton doing most of the heavy lifting). The title track takes a simple riff layered on top of an effective groove and jams on top of those elements for fifteen minutes. This is the type of excess that is more of a celebration of community than of individual artistic virtuosity. And, in its own way, the Essential Cut “Party Up in Here” is as intense as Motorhead. Grade: B+

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