Let’s get this list going!
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Rust Never Sleeps (1979). This album is sited so often by people in my age group as a touchstone album, I really am at a loss as to what to add. Basically, this is Neil at his most diverse covering acoustic songs on Side One and electric, nearly proto-grunge on Side Two. Much of the album was recorded live on his 1978 tour, giving the material the room to breathe and the musicians a sense of urgency to plow into the music full-on. Pound for pound, this remains my favorite Neil Young disc.
Pink Floyd – The Wall (1979). For a band known for making great statements, this represents the Floyd at their grandest, most overblown moment. Across the double album, we are taken on a trip in which our hero is psychologically damaged early and often until he can no longer accept the distance between himself and his audience (and other band members). While teens saw it as a metaphor for growing up, in retrospect, he can see it as Roger Waters’ frustrations of being a member of Pink Floyd. Maybe The Wall isn’t their greatest statement (The Dark Side of the Moon is), but it seems to be the one that resonates with people the most.
Pretenders – Pretenders (1979). The Chrissie Hynde-led Pretenders burst onto the scene in the UK in 1979 and made their presence felt in the States the following year. With so many changes being made since the Wilson sisters burst onto the scene with Heart, strong women like Patti Smith and Debbie Harry were leading bands that no one was surprised that the Pretenders followed suit. The difference being that this was the sound of original Kinks guitar rock distilled through punk with an E.R.A.-minded woman fronting the band. Ms. Hynde was taking no crap from anyone.
Sister Sledge – We Are Family (1979). Few were prepared for these four sisters to make such a huge splash, but even fewer were ready for the fact that the masterminds behind these talented women were Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, better known as The Chic Organization. The combination was just plain dance floor heaven, with the title song, “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and the mesmerizing “Lost in Music.”
Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1979). Supertramp took many years for them to work out their sound. They almost had it all together on 1977’s Even in the Quietest Moments and their hit song “Give a Little Bit.” But, on this album, the band hit the motherlode with their brand of Beatlesque melodies and art rock flourishes. The album is stuffed full of Classic Rock radio hits, such as “The Logical Song” and “Take the Long Way Home.”
Talking Heads – Fear of Music (1979). For a major portion of this album, Talking Heads have taken a minimalist’s approach to their music. Yet, their are funky, African-based signs of their future sound in a couple of places just to keep things interesting. What this adds up to is this is their most satisfying album to date, yet leaving you with the gnawing feeling that more was to come. The album is known for “Heaven” and “Life During Wartime,” but I keep coming back to the prophetic sounds of “I Zimbra.”
The B-52’s – The B-52’s (1979). Welcome to the party Athens, Georgia! That’s right! The B-52’s opened the door for Pylon and R.E.M. to eventually follow through. The great thing about The B-52’s is that they took their love of pop culture’s trashier side from the Fifties and Sixties, repackaged it and sold it back to us via a rock-dance-new wave fusion that was as thrilling as it was exhilarating. This album was one of the party albums for the next decade, at least until their unexpected 1989 comeback.
The Boomtown Rats – The Fine Art of Surfacing (1979). Years before Bob Geldof became Sir Bob Geldof, mastermind of Band Aid and Live Aid, he was the lead singer of a strong little Irish band called The Boomtown Rats. While the band never really commercially cracked The States, they did give us this one magnificent album of new wave nirvana. The album is known for the UK mega-hit “I Don’t Like Mondays,” but I’ve always been partial to “Someone’s Looking at You.”
The Commodores – Midnight Magic (1979). Let the arguments begin as to which Commodores’ album I should have on this list. Well, I chose this one because it had a monster ballad, of course, in “Still,” a surprisingly country-ish hit in “Sail On” (a sound Lionel Richie would perfect on Kenny Rogers’ hit “Lady”) and some excellent funk, for which the band was originally known.
The Crusaders – Street Life (1979). Back in the late-Seventies, jazz artists were dipping their toes in both the rock and disco worlds, with Chuck Mangione and Herb Alpert being two artists who found some commercial success in the era. But, a little band called The Crusaders perfected the sound on this album, which went on to influence the sound of jazz in the Eighties (Wynton Marsalis comes to mind). The title track is an eleven-minute exercise of this whole fusion.
The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys (1979). The Cure’s debut album is something of an anomaly in their catalog since it is full of punkish nervousness and not the Gothic atmospheric sound the band perfected afterwards. Yet, it remains a landmark album of the post-punk era. Plus, it has the anthem of a generation in “Boys Don’t Cry.”
The Jam – Setting Sons (1979). This album represents a turning point in Paul Weller’s career. First, his melodies are becoming more memorable and strong. Perhaps more importantly, his lyrical observations are mature and a tad more jaded. This means that Weller is going into adulthood with maturing tools that will make him one of the most compelling voices of my generation. But, the band has yet to peak. Just wait!
The Kinks – Low Budget (1979). Wait a second! What are the stalwarts of the late-Sixties doing back here with all these punks, new wavers, funkateers and disco stars? Simply put, they are the fathers of the whole UK punk and new wave scene and were welcomed back as the conquering heroes they had become. Plus, no one could put the plight of the late-Seventies into better perspective than Ray Davies.
The Knack – Get The Knack (1979). That’s right! I still LOVE this album. It was the right sound at the right time. This just might be the first important album for Generation X. And, it deserves all the baggage that comes with it, but that’s more of the label’s fault than the band’s. What the band delivered was a brilliant set of teenage boy’s perspective songs set to a power pop setting and executed with a punk rocker’s fury. This is a classic!
The Police – Reggatta de Blanc (1979). Another band that gets unfairly maligned grew by leaps and bounds from the debut album the previous year to this one. This album remains my favorite album of their amalgamation of punk, art rock and reggae. “Message in a Bottle” and “Walking on the Moon” are the best remembered song, but “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” is the masterpiece on this album.
The Specials – The Specials (1979). In the late-Seventies, all the rules were being thrown out in music. Racially-integrated bands were popping up that were equally a political statement as a musical one. Bands were grabbing musical inspiration from all kinds of sources, most notably a pre-reggae sound called ska. Ska was perfect for the punks of the era to branch into because of its simplicity and energy. And, no band was more essential in this genre than The Specials. More of a phenomenon in the UK, they led the ska-revival movement ahead by light years, leaving fellow ska bands like Madness spending a career attempting to catch up. If you need proof, you YouTube the band’s performances on Saturday Night Live. The band’s debut is their finest, but I cannot emphasize enough how important their other albums are.
The Undertones – The Undertones (1979). It’s a shame this band has not been heard by a majority of Americans because they are missing one of the great ones. This album has been praised by so many Brits I have met over the years that it can’t be denied how fantastic it is. If I were to compare it to anyone, and hear me out, it is the aforementioned debut album by The Knack. Both are equally steeped in power pop and punk energy. Both are full of male teenage dreams. And, both have outstanding anthems, in this case the immortal “Teenage Kicks.” Give this album a chance, you will not regret it!
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – Damn the Torpedoes (1979). Tom and the boys had their backs against the wall. Their record company had been absorbed by another, and MCA was attempting to hijack Tom of his writing royalties. During this fight, the band bonded together like a gang and created one of the great classics of American garage rock. In the process, producer Jimmy Iovine goaded drummer Stan Lynch into created a recorded drum sound so big that it became one of the sounds of the Eighties. Plus, if you can’t hear Side One of this album, you better get your hearing checked. The legend of Tom Petty was born on this album.
And, that my friends, is 1979. My apologies to the many great artists whose albums I left off this portion of my list, as I just could not bring myself to list every Prince album no matter my true feelings. Just know that if I leave off a Prince or Tom Petty album, I am doing a little lying in order to pimp some other deserving artists.