The Finest Year For Music, pt 1


I think we all have a year we remember that had it all, musically. Maybe not every style of music was represented, or maybe the year preceding or following also had some huge stuff from one artist or band that your favourite year doesn’t have. You know how it is. But I think we all have one specific year that just summed it all up for us, that instructed us on how our favourite music was going to be like.

There are a few seminal years in Rock history that just about everybody hails as their year. Some subscribe to 1956 and the birth of American Rock & Roll. Others subscribe to the idea that 1963-64 was the birth of modern rock as we know it, with the British invasion. 1967 was the Summer of Love, with the birth of Psychedelia and expanded consciousness being the main subject of the Arts, including pop music. Still others claim that 1973 was the greatest year in Rock music, with more monster classic albums and hit songs than nearly any other year combined. Punk and New Wave fans of course look to 1977 as a watershed year. Hard Rockers remember 1984 as the year Van Halen cracked the top ten, and the 90s as a whole leans pretty heavily on 1992 as the year every style we’ve pretty much been listening to and calling ‘new music’ since then exploded. I could go on, but my point is, every generation has a start point, but most of us can point to one watershed year or another.

My best year, musically, is 1980. Oh, sure, some of my favourite albums were recorded years or even decades before or after 1980, but most of what is really important to me, musically, went through a major shift in and around 1980, which coloured much of what I listen to even now. I also derive a lot of my influences from 67-73, but in and around 1980, every artist or band I loved (and still love) were either dead or were making some of the best, most significant music of their career.

I wrote a brief series of essays a few days ago, while playing favourite songs from around 1980 and explaining why I thought they were essential transitional songs/albums. When I say transitional, I mean these were albums that set up not only a major shift in the direction of the artist or band in question, but it affected just about everyone else, too.

A great cross-pollination of ideas was going on between 1979 and 1981, which basically set up everything we’ve been listening to for the better part of the last thirty years (minus Glam Rock and Grunge, which were reactions to all the clean, crisp production values that had become standard in the mid to late 80s; they fed mainly off of the early-to-mid 70s).

So what I’m gonna do is flip through my entire collection and list off all of the albums I have in my collection from the 1979-1981 period, and give a brief explanation as to why they were so important:

The Alan Parsons Project – The Turn of A Friendly Card (1980)
This was perhaps the most cohesive statement that APP made in their career. It wasn’t their most experimental (that was and remains Tales of Mystery and Imagination), nor was it their highest charter (which was probably I, Robot, Eye In The Sky or Ammonia Avenue), but I believe it summed up everything they had been doing in the 70s, and paved the way to their 80s output, which would prove to be more synth-driven and radio-friendly.

Anthony Phillips – Private Parts and Pieces II: Back to the Pavilion (1980)
This is a strange album to choose, because most people have no idea who Anthony Phillips is, and few of those who do would choose this album as a highlight. It’s not The Geese and the Ghost. It’s not Wise After The Event or Sides. It’s not even Private Parts and Pieces I, which was a watershed album in Ant’s career. But I have two words for you: Scottish Suite. Ant and Mike Rutherford collaborated on what would prove to be one of the last true Progressive Rock suites Ant would ever work on, and though it’s a little underdone in its nascent form, he added to it years later, and I compiled the two halves into a more cohesive Prog Rock suite, which can be found HERE. It’s revisionist, perhaps, but I think it stands as one of his finest works, and it’s pretty much the last 70s-style prog rock epic written and recorded by a former practitioner until the 90s started to slowly bring Prog back into vogue. The rest of the album points directly to the way Ant would compose and record his music for the next 30 years, so you can practically see the shift happen on one album.

Bruford – Gradually Going Tornado (1980)
The last of the Bruford albums, and perhaps the most fitting capstone on the classic Jazz Fusion experiments of the 70s. Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever were gone, and Weather Report was drifting from Fusion to Funk to Rock to the Jaco Pastorius years (which ended shortly after his second solo album in 1981). Bruford (the band) had its roots in Prog Rock and the original line-up of UK, but in two short years created a varied and fascinating body of Jazz Fusion work, before Bill Bruford disbanded the project and moved on to things like Earthworks and ABWH in the 80s.

Billy Joel – Glass Houses (1980)
DUDE! This album was a monster, and still is. It also showed a significant shift in production values and pop song composition. Billy was still a contender, and pretty near every tune on this album does things he’d never done before. It telegraphed nearly every move he’d make for the rest of his career as a songwriter, and ushered in the transition of so many pop artists who had gotten lost in the late 70s punk hurly-burly.

Blue Oyster Cult – Fire of Unknown Origin (1981)
The previous year’s Cultorsaurus Erectus doesn’t hold a candle to the transition they experienced in 1981, when for better or for worse, the band started courting the sounds and styles of the 80s. It’s perhaps the last great album they ever released, and has a number of fantastic tunes on it, including the minor hit Burning For You.

The Buggles – The Age of Plastic (1980)
Video Killed The Radio Star. ‘Nuff Said.

Cheap Trick – Dream Police (1979)
This album cemented the band as a serious contender for album oriented rock music, including the title track and Voices, which are stand-out tracks that stand head and hands above most of the rest of their considerably polished and catchy canon.

David Bowie – Scary Monsters (1980)
The last of his experimental albums before shifting into Blue-Eyed Soul for the early 80s, and including the classic Ashes To Ashes, a perfect melding of 70s instrumentation put through what would soon be standard 80s production values. A chilling and fascinating album with hooks and neck-wrenching twists.

Def Leppard – High & Dry (1981)
Their debut in 1980 was respectable, but by 1981, they had begun the trip that would lead them to Hysteria and international stardom. It also had the first of the numbers that would mark their style for arena rock anthems with Bringing On The Heartbreak.

Duran Duran – eponymous (1981)
Girls On Film. Planet Earth. Is There Something I Should Know. It’s not the Rio album, but all the earmarks were there from day one. They may have been the prettiest pop stars of the New Wave genre, but they weren’t just pretty faces. they could play, and man could they write. That they floundered a fair bit in the 90s (though the Wedding Album and Pop Trash are great) and have really only survived into the new millennium by attempting to recapture their classic 80s sound is more a testament to the specific chemistry and alchemy that they had in the early 80s. Perhaps they peaked too soon, but they left an indelible mark on the 80s.

Electric Light Orchestra – Time (1981)
This was pretty much the last hurrah for ELO as a progressive-influenced band. It was a return to form, in a sense, though it had more synth than previous efforts, and marked the shift to the more New Wave-tinged sound they would retain until the exit of principal composer and band leader Jeff Lynne. As a concept album, it’s a little light on plot, but it’s a lovely album, and though they had hits before and after it, this album serves as the last cohesive effort ELO ever made.

Frank Zappa – Joe’s Garage (1979)
Too many words have been wrestled to the ground explaining the legacy of Frank Zappa. What I will say is that Joe’s Garage is basically the most cohesive, most ambitious rock album he ever created, and though he continued to dabble in the 80s, it was pretty much his swan song as a performing and composing rock artist. He soon transitioned into electronic composition on the Synclavier II, dabbling in Jazz and Twelve Tone 20th Century music, and in composing for orchestra with the last projects he actively laid hands on while he still lived. It’s far from the last or greatest highlight of his career, but it stands as a monument to Rock & Roll subversion.

Genesis – Duke (1980)
No one that knows me well is unaware of how important this album is to me personally and influentially, but I think a lot of people regard it as the end of an era, rather than the beginning of a new one. In truth, it is both the last concept album and last hurrah of their period as a full-fledged progressive rock act, and the first harbinger of the direction their albums would take in the 80s and 90s, with tight, well-crafted, group-conceived compositions taking up fully half of the album, thus paving the way for the format the band would continue to exist in until pretty much the end of its recording career. While only half of the album is intentionally a part of the overall Duke Suite, because of the unusual way the pieces are distributed throughout the album, the rest of the songs unintentionally form a broader concept, and it works remarkably well both as a concept album and as a collection of songs. Perhaps the finest of its day, at that.

George Harrison – Somewhere In England (1981)
Not the greatest album of his career, but it marks the beginning of his transition from the mode of album writing he’d been in through the 70s, and showed a marked return to form as a pop songwriter. It wouldn’t be immediately realized, but his eventual transition to Cloud Nine and The Travelling Wilburys started here. It also contains perhaps the most poignant tribute to the passing of John Lennon; the pop classic, All Those Years Ago.

INXS – eponymous (1980)
The early beginnings of the band saw them flirting with New Romantic, Ska and even Punk flavours, to mixed results, but it’s still an eerily prescient indication of where they were going to go as a band, with highly polished songwriting and performing skills apparent from the very beginning. It’s not Listen Like Thieves or Kick, but it’s still an album I put on more often than I can comprehend the reason for.

Japan – Tin Drum (1981)
Japan are a huge band for me, but David Sylvian and Mick Karn in particular were amazing. Gentlemen Take Polaroids from the year before may have been the first true indicator of where they were going, but it was with Tin Drum that they arrived. Visions of China is still a wonder, and it fairly accurately indicated where most of the New Romantic bands were going to set up shop for the next few years, until Duran Duran finished them all off.

Jethro Tull – A (1980)
This is not an album I’ve spent a lot of time with, but it is a transitional album if ever there was one, with the brief induction and collaboration with keyboardist/violinist Eddie Jobson of Roxy Music and UK fame. He would move on to do an extremely brief stint in the reconstituted Trevor Rabin-era Yes, but it was Tull that benefited most from their break with the progressive rock sounds of the 70s. It would be years before they had an actual hit on their hands again (and a minor one at that; Steel Monkey), but Tull survived by changing gears, and this is a pretty strong marker of where the changes started.

John & Yoko Ono Lennon – Double Fantasy (1980)
Okay, it’s got some fine songs on it, but it’s not a perfect, landmark album, excepting of course that it’s the last album he issued before his murder. But its reappraisal after that fact marked a lot of what followed with most British artists, the tributes and the reconsideration that this album have received since then have more than rehabilitated it in the eyes of most critics and fans alike.

Journey – Evolution (1979)
1980’s Departure would mark the completion of their transition from a late 70s Progressive Rock band into a Corporate Rock band, but the changes were in the air as far back as Steve Perry’s first album with the band in 1978. That said, it was 1979’s Evolution that proved to be the real transition album, bridging the divide between 70s Prog and 80s pop with Lovin’ Touchin’ Squeezin’ and When You’re Alone (It Ain’t Easy), while numbers like the instrumental opener Majestic, Too Late, and City of the Angels showed them in fine–if truncated–neo-progressive form. 1981’s excellent Escape is the album where they cemented their reputation for sweeping ballads, but this was truly their last great rock album.

Judas Priest – British Steel (1980)
I haven’t spent much time with this album either, but I would be doing Heavy Metal a disservice if I didn’t mention it. Iron Maiden had released their first album in 1980, but they hadn’t yet cemented themselves as one of the pre-eminent heavy metal bands of the 80s. Judas Priest had been through a number of changes up to this point, and British Steel is where they truly began to solidify what became known as the British New Wave of Heavy Metal.

King Crimson – Discipline (1981)
This album changed more than most folks would like to admit. For starters, it was a sea change from what Kc had last released with 1974’s Red album. Bill Bruford was back, but gone were the progressive rock masterpieces, replaced with alien instrumentals and the perhaps even more alien tone poetry of new vocalist and guitarist Adrian Belew. Rounded out by Peter Gabriel’s brilliant bass player, Tony Levin, this edition of the Good Ship Krim would sail for just a few years, but in that time would release some of the edgiest, most articulate art rock music of the 80s.

Klaatu – Endangered Species (1980)
This was the beginning of the end, really, for the peculiar Progressive Rock trio from Canada, but it might not have seemed so, with the addition of the gorgeous Knee Deep In Love. An underrated album, but also a cautionary tale of what could go wrong as 70s acts attempted to reinvent themselves for the 80s.

Led Zeppelin – In Through The Out Door (1979)
By this time, the excesses of the band had all but consumed them, and yet, under the careful guidance of multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, they managed to create perhaps the most cohesive, innovative, infectious album of their career. It’s still one of my favourite albums.

Max Webster – A Million Vacations (1979)
Not so much a transition as an arrival, this entire album is pure gold. Not precisely a Prog Rock act, though they often dabbled, Max Webster was primarily the writing team of guitarist Kim Mitchell and lyricist Pye Dubois, with tasteful additions from keyboardist Terry Watkinson, and the title track by drummer Gary McCracken. This is a desert island album for me. If you’ve never heard it, you owe it to yourself to try it. Sadly, it marked the departure of Terry, and the band only recorded one more album before calling it quits. Kim Mitchell went on to greater fame as a solo artist, but they periodically fall back together and apart for a few nights every decade or so. They remain a staple of Canadian Rock Radio.

Well, this has proven to be a longer article than I thought it would be, so I’m gonna cut it in half and write the rest tomorrow later.

Part Two

Thanks for reading. Come back tomorrow for the second helping.


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