My 3 1/2-year exploration into popular music has been, for lack of a better word, adventurous. My monthly dissection of a particular year in music has reaped benefits I never expected: it has given me new perspective on recordings I know like the back of my hand, introduced me to new artists and subgenres I otherwise wouldn't touch, and put the evolution of music into a more cohesive perspective. Some years (1967, 1970, 1980) were an embarassment of riches; others (1981, 1989, 1999) not so much. What I've uncovered now is a whole different animal.
This month's feature, 1977, was probably the strongest year in music of the last half-century as well as the most bipolar. It was a merciless year for both mainstream and underground music, and the albums and songs mentioned below --as disparate as these two groups may be-- have a canonical, indispensible feel. To oversimplify the matter, it was disco versus punk, but there were fine rock and R&B cuts to be found as well. The popular kids emulated Studio 54, the freaks and burnouts paid heed to CBGB's, and right up the middle of the bell curve were the kids buying the latest K-Tel compilation record set.
Where most best-of lists clump the two factions together, following suit just didn't feel right. Even though punk dominates most critics' polls now (and rightfully so), their work wasn't discovered by the general populace until several years later. With a handful of exceptions, most of the songs that merited radio play are unjustly ignored, and nowadays serve as filler on oldies formats. With that said, for this month only I bucked my usual format and fleshed out two top ten lists. To quote AllMusic critic/blogger Tim Sendra:
"If you lived in small town Middle America in 1977, you weren’t listening to Television, you were watching it; Iggy Pop was the off-brand soda your mom bought at A&P; Lee Perry was the kid who sat behind you in biology; and the Ramones were that family down the street who never mowed their lawn. No, you were glued to the radio and Casey Kasem was God as he ran down the AT40 each week..."
In short, what was "hip" and happening 35 years ago was opposite sides of the same coin. To complicate matters, 1977 was a year so top-heavy in great songs and albums that whittling this down to a clean, even 20 proved too daunting. There are at least two albums and two songs in each category that could've made the cut, but I didn't want this to be too inclusive. Without further ado...
BEST ALBUMS (Non-Mainstream)
2. Exodus, Bob Marley & The Wailers. I'm surprised more people aren't giving me flack for putting more Marley (or reggae in general) on my annual lists. If you know nothing about the Jamaican musician/activist, however this is an excellent place to start. The catchy "Jamming" and "Three Little Birds" were minor hits in the US, and the old Curtis Mayfield tune "People Get Ready" proves quite supple for rocksteady.
3. Marquee Moon, Television. Over in New York, the best American punk album of the year was essentially a guitar rock album. Wearing their Velvet Underground influence like a medal of honor, TV trades in anarchy for introspection and angry shredding for instrumental virtuosity, hinting towards the post-punk movement at the tail end of the '70s. Where most of their peers lived in the "now," TV was wondering if they had any future.
4. The Clash, The Clash
5. My Aim is True, Elvis Costello
6. Rocket to Russia, The Ramones
7. Pink Flag, Wire
8. Talking Heads '77, Talking Heads
9. Leave Home, The Ramones
10. Damned, Damned, Damned, The Damned. Released several months before The Clash and Sex Pistols' debuts, DDD was the warning shot of British punk. Giving themselves outrageous stage names like Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible, the Damned are credited with doing everything first. The thrash of "Neat Neat Neat" launches the mayhem, while the smoking "New Rose" redefines romantic angst.
Honorable Mentions: Young, Loud and Snotty, The Dead Boys; 1, The Motors; Lust for Life, Iggy Pop.
BEST ALBUMS (Rock/Pop)
1. Rumours, Fleetwood Mac. This #1 pick says more about my personal tastes than anything else here; I'll crank up the radio anytime "Go Your Own Way" or "The Chain" plays. Biased or not, there's little denying Rumours' masterpiece status. The internal strife that fueled the album's recording bleeds into the work, and the result is two parts mouth-gapping and beautiful. Like a car accident on the highway, you can't help but watch the wreckage.
2. Aja, Steely Dan. Jazz-rock without the rock, The Dan's sixth album (and fourth as a studio-only entity) brings the Becker-Fagen combo to unparalled levels of composition and sonic detail. The lyrics aren't as collegiate and cynical as their earlier work, and the licks by guest stars Larry Carlton and Victor Feldman are too tasty to resist.
3. Bat Out of Hell, Meat Loaf. I won't pretend that this is a guilty pleasure pick. The combination of producer Todd Rundgren, composer Jim Steinman, and operatic frontman Marvin Lee Aday makes for both a Wagnerian juggernaut and a grandly silly magnum opus. For all it's worth, this album is just... irresistable.
4. Low, David Bowie
5. The Stranger, Billy Joel
6. Out of the Blue, Electric Light Orchestra
7. Slowhand, Eric Clapton
8. "Heroes", David Bowie
9. Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel
10. In Color, Cheap Trick. Where their self-titled debut feels a tad raw and borrows heavily from their influences (Todd Rundgren, The Beatles, The Who), CT's second album depicts a great band fully formed. Paired with producer Tom Werman, the rough edges are smoothed to radio-friendly perfection. Sure, it's not as visceral as their previous album, but the songs themselves are top-to-bottom resplendent.
Honorable Mentions: Let There Be Rock, AC/DC; Cheap Trick, Cheap Trick; CSN, Crosby, Stills & Nash; Running on Empty, Jackson Browne; Low Budget, The Kinks.
Outstanding Achievement by a Film Soundtrack: Saturday Night Fever, The Bee Gees/Various Artists. More cultural phenomenon than artistic achievement, the movie and its accompanying soundtrack defines 1977 as a year as well as the music trend it created. It was also a culmination of the direction the Brothers Gibb were taking at the time, turning them from stalwart pop act to international megastars.
BEST SINGLES (Punk)
"I'm Stranded," The Saints
"Blank Generation," Richard Hell & The Voidoids
"Do the Boob," The Real Kids
"Loretta," The Nervous Eaters
"Do Anything You Wanna Do," Eddie & The Hot Rods
"I Hate the Rich," Dils
"Don't Push Me Around," The Zeros
"A Life of Crime," The Weirdos
"2-4-6-8 Motorway," Tom Robinson Band
"Whole Wide World," Wreckless Eric
BEST SINGLES (Rock)
"We Will Rock You/We Are The Champions," Queen
"Closer to the Heart," Rush
"Come Sail Away," Styx
"Cold as Ice," Foreigner
"Godzilla," Blue Oyster Cult
"Cat Scratch Fever," Ted Nugent
"Too Hot to Handle," UFO
"Estimated Prophet," The Grateful Dead
"Birdland," Weather Report
BEST SINGLES (Pop/R&B)
"Dancing Queen," ABBA
"Don't Leave Me This Way," Thelma Houston
"Higher and Higher," Rita Coolidge
"You Don't Have To Be a Star," Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.
"Right Time of the Night," Jennifer Warnes
"Nobody Does It Better," Carly Simon
"Couldn't Get It Right," Climax Blues Band
"Jungle Love," The Steve Miller Band
"Love is the Answer," Utopia