Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That Wonderful Year in Music... 1980

Ah, 1980. This is one of those years that I genuinely wish I could travel back in time and visit and just plain savor. Obviously, it was the year following 1979 --a strong year for music and a tough act to follow-- but overall it was probably just as memorable a 12-month span, if not an extension of the trends that were blossoming in '79. Disco was finally dying out, rap was on the cusp of a breakthrough, and the do-it-yourself nihilism of punk was losing ground to the easier to swallow, yet aggressively weird aesthetic of new wave. Underground FM radio was on its last legs, as the increasingly corporate sound of mainstream rock was becoming more and more indistinguishable from "safe" Top 40 radio. While other subgenres were still finding their direction, heavy metal was already on its destined path, courtesy of Judas Priest and a new act called Iron Maiden. It was a transitional year, yet great music could be found pretty much all over the place.

I didn't intend this list to be a top 20, but it was hard to encompass everything that happened in music that year and whittle it down to ten essential albums. There were at least 25 albums that I wanted to include, but after some internal debate I whittled it down to the list that you see here. I had a similar issue with the singles; I simply didn't want to overlook anything crucial.


1. Remain In Light, Talking Heads. The Heads' first three albums, all fine in their own right, were merely leading up to this. Fear of Music tracks like "I Zimbra" and "Life During Wartime" alluded to David Byrne's growing infatuation with African polyrhythms, a flirtation that he finally acts upon on Remain In Light. Each track adheres to a similar guitar-drum riff, creating a groove that's almost impossible to get out of your head. (It's also their most verbose album, though that's almost beside the point.) In short, this album is as incomparable as it is brilliant.
2. Making Movies, Dire Straits. When taking a quick jog through the Straits' oeurve, it's pretty obvious that most fans gravitate towards Brothers In Arms, their best-selling, award-nominated 1985 smash. I disagree with this (unofficial) majority opinion, largely because those people tend to emphasize Dire Straits' hits and not the substance of Mark Knopfler's songwriting. In a just world, Making Movies would be their undisputed masterpiece; it's one of those albums where you hear something new every time you listen to it. I just love this album.
3. Crazy Rhythms, The Feelies. Somewhat obscure yet highly influential, The Feelies' first LP could be argued as the missing link between Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground. Minimalist and percussion-heavy (hence the title), the jangly guitars of frontmen Glenn Mercer and Bill Million keep this freewheeling record from descending into chaos. I saw The Feelies do a 75-minute set at Millennium Park in Chicago last summer; they played four tunes from Rhythms and dadgummit, they still hold up.
4. Closer, Joy Division
5. Back In Black, AC/DC
6. The River, Bruce Springsteen
7. Pretenders, The Pretenders
8. Los Angeles, X
9. British Steel, Judas Priest
10. Fresh Fruit for Rotten Vegetables, Dead Kennedys. Punk was all but dead in the UK by 1980, and the New York and Boston scenes had moved onto artsy experimentation (see albums #1 and 3), but the west coast did not get that memo. Where their LA-based peers X emphasized songcraft, the Bay Area outfit Dead Kennedys was often little more than a platform for the far-left ramblings of Jello Bialfa. If the Kennedys existed only to slam supply-side economics, they'd be a forgotten relic; instead, their debut long-player is a powerful fusion of surf, rockabilly, and hardcore, doused with youthful anarchy.

11. Songs The Lord Taught Us, The Cramps
12. Get Happy!!!, Elvis Costello & The Attractions
13. Kings of the Wild Frontier, Adam Ant
14. Empty Glass, Pete Townshend
15. Sound Affects, The Jam. This is the album with "That's Entertainment," "Set the House Ablaze" and "Man in the Corner Shop." Need I say more?
16. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), David Bowie
17. Sandinista!, The Clash
18. Double Fantasy, John Lennon and Yoko Ono
19. Crocodiles, Echo & The Bunnymen
20. Gaucho, Steely Dan. A meticulous and precise effort, Gaucho is the prim follow-up to the smooth, relaxed Aja. Where their 1977 masterwork was almost seemless, this record wear its imperfections on its sleeve. Fine-tuned tracks like "Hey Nineteen" and "Babylon Sisters" carry an album that occasionally battles a lack of focus and overtly glossy production values. All in all, a decent nightcap to The Dan's marvelous '70s output.


"Ace of Spades," Motorhead
"Everybody Wants Some!" Van Halen
"Crazy Little Thing Called Love," Queen
"Don't Let Him Go," REO Speedwagon
"Hell Is For Children," Pat Benetar
"Emotional Rescue," The Rolling Stones
"Working My Way Back To You," The Spinners
"Funky Town," Lipps Inc.
"The Breaks," Kurtis Blow
"Rapper's Delight," The Sugar Hill Gang

"Late In The Evening," Paul Simon
"Call Me," Blondie
"I Will Follow," U2
"Ah! Leah!" Donnie Iris
"Back of My Hand (I've Got Your Number)," Jags
"So Good To Be Back Home Again," The Tourists
"What I Like About You," The Romantics
"Do You Remember Rock n' Roll Radio?" The Ramones
"Turning Japanese," The Vapors
"Love and Loneliness," The Motors


1. "Video Killed The Radio Star," The Buggles. Yes, it was first clip to air on MTV in 1981, the single was first released in 1979, but the video was shot in '80 so it counts here.
2. "Once in a Lifetime," Talking Heads. And you may ask yourself, "what's the deal with David Byrne's glasses?" And you may ask yourself, "is that from an old National Geographic special?" And you may ask yourself, "well, how can I be that limber?"
3. "Cars," Gary Numan. The ominous video from one of the greatest one-hit wonders ever. Now available in "tamborine-vision!"
4. "Comin' Up," Paul McCartney. Primitive green-screen technology enables Macca and his wife Linda to recreate an entire band, complete with a Ron Mael look-alike on keyboards and a bassist that looks like he wandered off "The Ed Sullivan Show."
5. The "Making Movies" Trilogy, Dire Straits. Rather than shoot a video for the leadoff single, Knopfler and company shot a surrealist 20-minute film encompassing Side A of their latest release. Please enjoy the trippy triptych of "Tunnel of Love," "Romeo and Juliet," and "Skateaway."

Your thoughts?


  1. #10 is titled 'Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables'. It was written, recorded, and released before there even was a Reagan Administration for Jello to whine about.

    Generously speaking, it's not a bad list of albums, but 'Sandinista!' and 'Double Fantasy'? Shouldn't albums where more than half the songs aren't good be left out?

  2. Thanks for catching that typo, Dan. I want to say I have a fine-tooth comb approach to proof-reading, but every once in a while something will slip through the cracks. The fewer errors, the better.

    Though Reagan wasn't elected yet when FFFRV was released, the "big tent" Republicans of the time were already making their agenda quite vocal. It was quite a far cry from the power-obsessed GOP that we know today.

    "Sandinista!" is an uneven effort, not uncommon with most double-LPs, but I thought the stronger tracks outweighted what didn't work. Ditto for "Double Fantasy," though I chose that album over, say, "Zenyatta Mondatta" for sentimental reasons.

    I really appreciate your feedback, Dan. I tend to do these lists about once a month, normally on the last Tuesday. Next month I'm covering 1995, if it helps.