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The ABCs of 1979 from Peter Green to the Iron City Houserockers

1.  Peter Green: “In the Skies” (PVK/EMI). Remember how Santana took Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” and made it one of their signature songs? On the opening number of “In the Skies,” Peter Green delivers a slow rewrite of “Oyo Como Va,” I guess in some attempt to turn the tables. This isn’t a bad album by any means, but it was primarily written in a tempo known to geologists as quicksand. Grade: B

2.  Art Gunfunkel: “Fate for Breakfast” (Columbia). Art Gunfunkel auditions to be the fifth Bee Gee on “Fate for Breakfast.” Alternate titles for this album – “Despair for Lunch” or “I Should Have the Little Guy Who Can Write Over for Dinner.” (Ok, admittedly, that’s not my best work). Grade: D+

3.  Buddy Guy: “Stone Crazy!” (Alligator). This album was released in 1979 in France and the U.K. but didn’t show up in the U.S. until 1981. Guy tries to play every lick he’s ever learned on this album and his lead metaphor is about a “two-legged rat.” This project could have used more restraint and much more imagination. Grade: B-

4.  Merle Haggard: “Serving 190 Proof” (MCA). Merle was in a melancholy mood on “Serving 190 Proof,” reflecting about being a middle-aged country star and loneliness on the road. Vocally, his baritone voice had deepened, giving a sense of gravitas to even average material. The hits were “Red Bandana,” about being unable to settle down, and the folkish “My Own Kind of Hat” (an Almost Essential Cut). Merle was obsessed with being his own man and that obsession served him well. Grade: B+

5.  Daryl Hall and John Oates: “X-Static” (RCA). Hall and Oates are like ABBA, without commercial validation their songs have no weight. “X-Static” includes the Top Twenty hit “Wait for Me,” which sounds like a template for many of their 1980s hits. Everything else sounds like slick, well produced filler. Grade: C+

6.  Tom T. Hall: “Ol’ T’s in Town” (MCA). Tom T. Hall was 43 years old when this album was released, but he sounds like he’s in his sixties. Since this is country music, that’s not a huge problem. This is very traditional country album with elements of bluegrass and gospel music. The material trails off at the end and the best cuts (“The Last Country Song,” “Old Habits Die Hard,” “Jesus on the Radio,” “The Old Side of Town”) may not be top tier Tom T. Hall, but they are just a stone’s throw away. Grade: B+

7.  Emmylou Harris: “Blue Kentucky Girl” (Warner Brothers). This is Emmylou doing what Emmylou did, recording a mix of songs by contemporary songwriters and country classics with an excellent studio cast. My problem with Emmylou is that during her era as a hitmaking country artist, the results sounded too perfect – like someone trying to turn a home into a museum instead of just living in it. Lots of people love her, but I’m more in the admire category. Essential Cut: “Blue Kentucky Girl.” Grade: B

8.  Emmylou Harris: “Light of the Stable” (Warner Brothers). An X-mas album and the perfect record for everyone who dreams of an excessively pensive Christmas. Grade: B

9.  Isaac Hayes: “Don’t Let Go” (Polydor). On this album, Hayes covered the 1950s hits “Don’t Let Go” (by Jesse Hamilton) and “Fever” (Little Willie John) as disco tracks. Really, really looonnnggg disco tracks. It was a few years too late for Hayes to do a Barry White imitation. Grade: C+

10.  Head East: “Live!” (A&M). Oh, boy, a double live album filled with juiced up applause, Midwest prog rock, and inferior versions of their few and far between hits. Grade: C-

11.  The Heartbreakers: “Live at Max’s Kansas City” (Max’s Kansas City). This documents the kind of wonderfully chaotic rock ‘n’ roll that you got from punks who played music to support their heroin addiction. The vibe? “Let Go” is an original that sounds like the Stones covering Chuck Berry. The set ends by covering the Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” which makes me think that these guys were the spiritual godfathers of the Replacements. Grade: B+

12.  Heatwave: “Hot Property” (Epic). The U.K. dance band Heatwave is known in the U.S. for their hit singles “Boogie Nights,” “Always and Forever,” and “The Groove Line.” Bandleader Rod Temperton would go on to write some of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits. This album didn’t include any hits, but it’s an admirable effort, nonetheless. In a blindfold test you would think half of the material was performed by Earth, Wind and Fire. Grade: B

13.  John Hiatt: “Slug Line” (MCA). Given Hiatt’s later Americana bent, it’s weird to hear Hiatt singing like an Indiana based Elvis Costello on this album. Attitude, attitude – this record is all about having a chip on your shoulder. The vocals are a strained yelp and his songwriting would improve later. It’s understandable why Bonnie Raitt never covered “The Negroes Are Dancing” or “Sharon’s Got a Drug Store.” Grade: B-

14.  The Human League: “Reproduction” (Virgin). If you were a Brit teen who wanted to convince your parents you were suicidal in 1979, this LP would have done the trick. The single was titled “Circus of Death.” If you overdosed on James Brown and needed a funk antidote, you could swallow this otherwise useless effort. Grade: C

15.  Ian Hunter: “You’re Never Alone With a Schizophrenic” (Chrysalis). Hunter could easily replicate that rollicking Mott the Hoople feel, since he created it. This album probably made Hunter the most money of his career, since Barry Manilow covered “Ships” and Drew Carey took the Almost Essential “Cleveland Rocks” to tv theme song glory. This a well-meaning record by a good man trying to replicate his past glories and despite the presence of the E Street Band, falling a half a step short. Grade: B

16.  Phyllis Hyman: “You Know How to Love Me” (Arista). For generic disco, the title track isn’t bad, but lacks a great hook. There’s nothing on this well produced dance album that would provide any insight into the bi-polar lead singer who would commit suicide in her mid-40s. There’s a wide gap at times between professionalism and artistic expression. Grade: B

17.  The Inmates: “First Offense” (Polydor).  These pub rockers had a tough garage sound and were proudly retro – their biggest hits were covers of The Standells’ “Dirty Water” and Jimmy McCracklin’s “The Walk.” Despite the fine performances, pretending that the world stopped in 1965 does have its limitations. Grade: B-

18.  Inner Circle: “Everything is Great” (Island). Inner Circle are best known in the U.S. for their song “Bad Boys,” which became the theme for the Fox Network underclass exploitation show “COPS.” This album isn’t traditional reggae – it’s pretty funny how much the intro to “Mary Mary” sounds like “Angie” by the Stones. They try a bit of everything on this album – pop, disco, funk, and admit that they have “gold records” on their mind. The eclecticism does have a “let’s throw this at the wall and see if it sticks” feel. Grade: B-

19.  Instant Funk: “Instant Funk” (Salsoul). De La Soul smartly sampled the hit “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl”)” for “A Roller Skating Jam Named Saturdays.” This is party, groove music from a sharp, adaptable R&B unit fronted by Philly soul veteran Bunny Sigler . Skip the one ballad and you’ve got one hell of a good dance album. Grade: B+

20.  Iron City Houserockers: “Love’s So Tough” (MCA). I don’t know if these were ugly guys, but the album cover is a hot blonde instead of the band. The music is so obviously AOR Springsteen that you can’t take it seriously. Just because something works in a Pittsburgh bar doesn’t mean the rest of the world needs to hear it. Grade: C+

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