The recent publication of David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971 The Year the Rock Exploded garnered attention recently because he argues that, “nobody imagined 1971 would see the release of more influential albums than any year before or since” (2). Of course he’s wrong, but you can read my thoughts on his book via my August 2016 Book Review located elsewhere on the blog. His argument is more than just a list of albums, but it inspired me to think about my favorites years in pop music culminating in the list below. I had a hard time choosing so I divided things into singles and albums for variety. Enjoy!
The late 1970s is often thought of in terms of the dominance of disco but I can’t think of a year that yielded more memorable pop singles across a spectrum of genres than 1979. Though disco yielded execrable one hit wonder type hits a number of artists like Donna Summer and the Bee Gees created a consistent group of songs in the style that have endured beyond the halcyon days of disco proving the genre is as capable of greatness as any other genre. Some disco classics from what’s sometimes called the end of disco (it wasn’t) include the following:
· “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “Dim All the Lights”: a pretty perfect trifecta from the Queen of Disco Donna Summer
· “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” the combustible lead single from Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall
· “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor the quintessential wounded-lover-survival-revenge anthem
· “Too Much Heaven,” “Tragedy,” “Love You Inside Out,” pillowy falsetto laden hits from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown
· Other classic disco hits: Chic’s “Le Freak” and “Good Times”; Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”; Earth Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland”; McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”
1979 was also the year when more danceable and melodic rock music inspired by element of punk and even disco hit the radio. Blondie scored with the disco rock (rock disco) hit “Heart of Glass” as well as the searing “One Way or Another” and “Dreaming.” The Cars scored with buoyant hits like “Good Times Roll,” “Let’s Go” and “Its All I Can Do.” Joe Jackson asked “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” and Nick Lowe observed how its “Cruel to Be Kind.”
In the R&B world, of which many disco hits were co-members, some signature songs included sweet ballads like Earth, Wind and fire’s “After the love is Gone,” The Commodores’ “Still,” and Teddy Pendergrass’s “Turn off the Lights.” There were also funk classics like Prince’s I Wanna Be Your Lover” and Rufus’s “Do you Love What You Feel.”
Great pop songs also covered a spectrum including the lusciously sung polyrhythmic “What a Fool Believes” (Doobie Brothers), the jazzy boho anthem “Chuck E’s in Love” (Rickie Lee Jones), and oddball songs like “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” (Rupert Holmes). Country was in a syrupy crossover phase (Kenny Rogers anyone?) and a lot of rock was mired in overproduction though songs like Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” stood out from so-called “corporate rock.”
When people complain contemporarily about the lack of variety on mainstream radio today it’s hard not to point out somewhat nostalgically that during a time when many rock critics felt like pop was losing its way the radio could accommodate songs that represented a broad quilt of tastes.
The LP was originally developed in the late 1940s for “serious” music (e.g. classical music). Then in the early 1950s popular singers released EPs and LPs with more content pushing them from singles artists to albums artists. Singers like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were pioneers who organized albums around themes. Though The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper (1967) is often thought of as rock’s first “concept album” this is untrue. Plenty of prior albums were made to tell a story and convey a concept. Regardless the technical and compositional feats of Sgt. Pepper helped solidify albums as the marker of great artists in the rock era. Sure a great single was something to savor but an album showcased one’s artistry more fully.
I nominate 1984 as the apex of album making so far. When you survey the popular albums of the era multiple sets register as classics or near classics that defined the sound of the era. Some of the best albums include:
1984 (Van Halen)
Big Bam Boom (Hall & Oates)
Born in the USA (Bruce Springsteen)
Building the Perfect Beast (Don Henley)
Can’t Slow Down (Lionel Richie)
Heartbeat City (The Cars)
Like a Virgin (Madonna)
Private Dancer (Tina Turner)
Purple Rain (Prince)
RUN-D.M.C (Run DMC)
She’s So Unusual (Cyndi Lauper)
My tastes lean toward the popular but for those who like things with more of an edge this was the year R.E.M released Reckoning and U2 released The Unforgettable Fire. For people who like the poppiest of pop Wham! released Make it Big and Huey Lewis & the News released Sports this year. For those who like it mellow Sade released Diamond Life (Happy now?).
Whereas the early 1980s meandered greatly—few great albums were released between 1980-82 it was such a transitional time in pop—1984 was a highly concentrated burst of albums that introduced new performers, solidified the strengths of veterans, and yielded music a broad spectrum of people enjoyed. Please email me your favorite year in pop music: I would love to know the year, the music, and the rationale.
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