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The ABCs of 1979 from Tom Waits to ZZ Top

1.  Tom Waits: “Blue Valentine” (Asylum). I give Waits a lot of credit for living his gimmick and I wished I enjoyed his music more, but that gravel chewing voice doesn’t always translate into pleasure for me. “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” sounds like the boho version of “Desperado” and elsewhere he comically oversings. However, not in a laugh out loud kind of way. Grade: C+

2.  Jennifer Warnes: “Shot Through the Heart” (Arista). Warnes broke through on the pop charts in 1976 with her Top Ten single “Right Time of the Night” and does a very credible Linda Ronstadt imitation on this album’s lead single/Essential Cut “I Know a Heartache When I See One.” Elsewhere, there’s a stilted cover of “Don’t Make Me Over” and MOR remakes of Dylan (“Sign on the Window”) and Jesse Winchester (“You Remember Me”). This is the L.A. studio rock version of an Anne Murray album, where blandness is viewed as the ultimate asset. Grade: C+

3.  Gene Watson: “Should I Come Home” (Capitol). Watson was somewhat of a lowkey major country star with twenty-one Top Ten country hits from 1975 to 1988. The title track from this album and “Nothing Sure Looked Good on You” were two of those Top Ten hits. This album has elements of classic country instrumentation, but the background vocals are often overwhelming and unnecessary. The highlight is a solid cover of Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in You).” Watson is a talented vocalist, but material like “That Evil Child” and “Circle Driveway” is beyond cringeworthy. Grade: C+

4.  Muddy Waters: “Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Waters Live” (Blue Sky Records). On this album, Muddy plays a selection of blues songs, primarily from the 1950s, at a tempo that would make Leonard Cohen drift off. Grade: C+

5.  Dottie West: “Special Delivery” (Liberty). This is country pop at its most unapologetic and the dance number/Essential Cut “A Lesson in Leavin’” even has a funky groove. Producers Randy Goodrum and Brent Maher penned most of the material on this album and they specialized in the type of gooey sentimentalism that makes me want to drink a 40 ounce out of a paper bag. Dottie did get a country cut on “We’ve Got Tonight” three years before Kenny Rogers sidechicked her as a duet partner and went to the bank with Sheena Easton. Grade: C

6.  The Whispers: “The Whispers” (SOLAR). After recording for fifteen years, the Whispers had their breakthrough pop hit in 1979 with the Almost Essential Cut/mid-tempo dance number “And the Beat Goes On.” “Out the Box” is another solid disco track, but the rest of the material either suffers from being uninspired (“Can You Do the Boogie”) or from schmaltz (“A Song for Danny”) or from desperation (an almost six-minute disco version of “My Girl”). Grade: C+

7.  Barry White: “The Message Is Love” (Unlimited Gold). Who doesn’t love Barry White? I mean, I dropped my panties five seconds into this album. Still, I’m not sure his bedroom bass voice was made for upbeat disco material and of three singles from this album, only one scraped into the R&B Top 40. The only thing that really works on this album is “You’re the One I Need,” where Barry slows down and realizes how good it feels to be a man. I do have to give the big guy credit though for the lush, warm blanket production values. Grade: B-

8.  James White and the Blacks: “Off White” (Ze). James White (nee James Chance) sounded like a punk/no wave James Brown on “Contort Yourself” (a six-minute dance number produced by August Darnell). Elsewhere, lots of squawking sax, herky-jerky rhythms, harsh sound effects, general weirdness. Music to play to get out of an awkward first date. Grade: C+

9.  Whitesnake: “Lovehunter” (United Artists). Deep Purple inspired pop metal with a distinct hard rock blues flavor. Spectacularly derivative. Grade: C

10.  Don Williams: “Portrait” (MGM). The killer track/Essential Cut on this album is “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” which namechecks Uncle Remus, Stonewall Jackson, deejays John R. and Wolfman Jack, Hank Williams, Tennessee Williams, and Thomas Wolfe, and notes that all those influences shaped the worldview of the narrator. Williams had a folksy baritone voice that conveyed a welcoming warmth. He wasn’t adventurous musically, which was a strength for him; slow and mid-tempo traditional country was his sweet spot. That did, however, somewhat lead to the Leonard Cohen problem – if the material wasn’t first rate, the results could be tedious. Grade: B-

11.  Hank Williams Jr.: “Family Tradition” (Elektra). Hank stumbled into his gimmick in 1979 without a lot of help from his label. Two of the first three singles from this album were covers of the Bee Gees (“To Love Somebody”) and the Bobby Fuller Four (“I Fought the Law”). The image defining/Essential Cut/Top Ten hit “Family Tradition” was the fourth single and the prior two didn’t even make the country Top 40 charts. With that hit, Hank had figured out what was going to work for him, and he rode that horse until it dropped dead. Grade: C+

12.  Hank Williams Jr.: “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” (Elektra). That crazy Hank Williams Jr. would just smoke that reefer and drink that whiskey and tell the goddamn stone-cold truth to anyone manly enough to accept it. Hell, after his mama paraded him around as a novelty act and he’d fallen off a mountain, what did he have to fear. Hank had some legitimate beefs in 1979, a gallon of gas cost a whole freaking dollar. That outlaw shtick may have seemed original and brave during its time, but it just seems like a lot of silly cliches in retrospect. Essential Cut: the good ol’ boy, hell raisin’ “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.” Grade: B-

13.  Wings: “Back to the Egg” (Columbia). Paul McCartney’s dominance over Top 40 radio started to fade with “Back to the Egg” – “Getting Closer” peaked at #20 and the musically dead on arrival “Arrow Through Me” peaked at #29. This was the final Wings album and nothing on this outing reinforces McCartney’s reputation as being one of pop music’s preeminent masters of melody. No unsigned band/artist could have come within sniffing distance of getting a record deal with this batch of uninspired songs. Grade: C

14.  Wire: “154” (Harvest). Wire sounded like they had created the world that Joy Division/New Order would inhabit on their “154” album. It’s dark material with much slicker production values than they had on their 1977 classic “Pink Flag.” Despite the doom filled aura, the blokes could still implement solid pop hooks as proven by “Single K.O.” and “Map Ref. 41 N 93 W.” Essential Cut: “The 15th,” named for the album’s 15th demo. Grade: B+

15.  Stevie Wonder: “Stevie Wonder’s Journey ‘Through the Secret Life of Plants’” (Tamla). Stevie Wonder was one of the biggest stars of the 1970s for valid reasons, but this double LP soundtrack effort ended the decade for him with a thud instead of a bang. Futuristic sounds, pseudo-jazz, pseudo-orchestration, pseudo-Oriental music, pseudo-African music – it all adds up to a real mess. He may have just put out this album to see if Berry Gordy’s head would explode. Almost Essential Cut, “Send One Your Love.” Grade: C+

16.  Roy Wood: “On the Road Again” (Warner Brothers). Homages to the Beach Boys, an attempt at disco, 1950’s influenced rock ‘n’ roll, a Beatles influenced closer, Wall of Sound production – not many memorable tunes. Grade: C+

17,  Tammy Wynette: “Just Tammy” (Epic). Tammy had a rough life. Her famous husband was a hopeless alcoholic and her last one treated her more like a cash cow than a human being. So, that little painful catch in her throat probably came naturally. Producer Billy Sherrill couldn’t get out of his own way here, but Tammy’s singing is exceptional, you can feel her hurt and regrets. Unfortunately, she’s putting a lot of effort into less than stellar product – like the guy who washes and waxes his AMC Gremlin every Saturday. Grade: B

18.  XTC: “Drums and Wires” (Virgin). I’m reviewing the U.S version of the album which includes “Making Plans for Nigel,” a classic about parental control of a child’s destiny, as well as the jump inducing, coming of age tale “Life Begins at the Hop” (both are Essential Cuts). The album represents a smart, yet quite arch, young band finding their stride, designed for cult success and not the masses. Also, everyone stick should stick around for the demon purging vocals of “Complicated Game,” which sounds heavier than Black Sabbath. Grade: B+

19.  Neil Young: “Rust Never Sleeps” (Reprise). On perhaps Neil Young’s strongest solo album, he saluted Johnny Rotten, fantasized about Pocahontas, and sheltered himself from the powder and the finger. For me, the grungy stomp of Crazy Horse is one of the definitive sounds in rock ‘n’ roll. Essential Cuts: “Powderfinger,” “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black).” Grade: A

20.  Neil Young with Crazy Horse: “Live Rust” (Reprise). Somewhat of a live best of, balanced between foikie Neil and guitar thrashing Neil. One of popular music’s most instinctive songwriters, captured during the era that I would argue was his artistic peak. Heaps of ragged glory, no discernable rust. Grade: A

21.  Frank Zappa: “Orchestral Favorites” (DiscReet). Zappa does closet cleaning, throwing in orchestra at his already over-arranged material. He should have been brave enough to title the record based on its closing track – “Bogus Pomp.” Grade: C

22.  Frank Zappa: “Sheik Yourbouti” (Zappa). Jesus, another double album, filled with satire on the music industry and the European hit “Bobby Brown,” a crass song about homosexuality for anyone who found “Lola” way too subtle. A relentlessly smug and condescending record. Grade: D+

23.  Frank Zappa: “Sleep Dirt” (DiscReet). On this instrumental record, “Filty Habits” sounds like a Pink Floyd outtake with flashier guitar playing. “Spider of Destiny” is pure prog rock. The title track is electric guitar noodling. It ends with a not at all bad 13-minute jam called “The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution.” Zappa was best in this era when he kept his mouth shut. Grade: B

24.  Frank Zappa: “Joe’s Garage” (Zappa). The title track works as a self-contained rock opera, but the rest is Zappa’s usual too-clever-for-the-room self-indulgence. Except for “Crew Slut,” which is really ugly misogyny. Grade: C

25.  Frank Zappa: “Joe’s Garage, Acts 2 & 3” (Zappa). The road goes on forever and the party never starts. Grade: C-

26.  ZZ Top: “Deguello” (Warner Brothers). ZZ Top’s funky take on Texas blues is served up hot here with the slow burn of “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” (an Essential Cut), the low budget fashion statement “Cheap Sunglasses,” and a trip to Stax with “I Thank You.” And songs like “She Loves My Automobile” and “A Fool for Your Stockings” helped create the band image that would make these hairy dudes an MTV sensation during the 1980s. Grade: A-

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