Welcome to a new series of lists in which I select my personal album chart picks of a specific year. Today, it's the 40th anniversary albums of 1979 – arranged in no order but chronological order of release.
MANIFESTO by ROXY MUSIC (First entered the charts 24th March 1979)
After a hiatus of three and a half years, Roxy Music returned to the album charts with what's my own personal favourite of their LPs. Initially, things didn't look too promising, since the lead single Trash barely cracked the Top 40. Maybe the old-school Roxy fans were none too impressed with the change in musical direction. Trash – a vastly underrated song from the band's catalogue – brilliantly gets with the new wave times in its compact two-minute time-frame.
That's what impresses with Manifesto – it's not a retreading of past glories, but an attempt to try something fresh and modern. While there are elements of the new disco trend – most notably on the successful Dance Away single, the equally danceable Still Falls The Rain, and the wah-chicka-wah guitar cool of Ain't That So – Roxy Music also keeps up with the punkier, guitar-driven power pop of the late '70s.
Those expecting the disco version of Angel Eyes may be surprised at the more conventional driving guitar arrangement (for me, it's the better choice of the two). Plenty of other potential singles include My Little Girl, Cry Cry Cry and the last dance ballad closer, Spin Me Round.
Which is one example of the band still keeping up with a more experimental approach in order to stop things from getting too safe. Spin Me Round boasts a creepy music box motif, lending this plaintive ballad a more sinister edge. The title track starts off as a moody instrumental before Bryan Ferry's vocals kick in at the point of about three quarters into the song. Stronger Through The Years' phased vocals sound as if they were recorded from the top of the hill in the psychedelic cap-off to the east side of the album.
A criminally underrated comeback album from one of the quintessential '70s bands.
I AM by EARTH WIND AND FIRE (First entered the charts 23rd June 1979)
I Am is a thing of joy.
It's rare that albums are this relentlessly upbeat and cheery throughout, since there's usually a downbeat ballad tucked away. But I Am bucks the trend with nine tracks that are guaranteed to bring a great big dopey grin to your face. Even the hit ballad, After The Love Has Gone sounds really bright and breezy!
It's good time fun throughout, and is the one that serves up a sizeable portion of hit singles. The ballad aside, there's also Boogie Wonderland (in a duet with The Emotions), Star, In The Stone and Can't Let Go.
This is another album in which any of the nine tracks could have worked well as a hit single. Standouts include the good-time celebration of Let Your Feeling Show, the bluesy tinge of Wait, and the instrumental, Rock That, which functions as a perfect showcase for the musical talents of the rhythm, brass and horn sections of the band.
If you're ever feeling down in the dumps, give this one a spin. In these doomy political times, a record like I Am is the ultimate feel-good antidote.
THE B52S by THE B52S (First entered the charts 4th August 1979)
It's rumoured that Rock Lobster by The B52s was the track that convinced John Lennon to scarper back to the recording studio. Ironically, his comeback album, Double Fantasy lacks the craziness and imagination of the debut offering from The B52s.
Taking inspiration from those old '50s and '60s days in image and sound, The B52s quickly proved that there weren't many bands like them around.
A main element of their debut album is its refusal to look at the world through adult eyes. There's a childlike charm to the songs, both in the lyrics and in the structure. 52 Girls reads as one of those alphabet phonics songs. Dance This Mess Around has Cindy Wilson take on a Peppermint Patty-style wail at being rejected at the local social event. Rock Lobster, the band's signature song, is a fun fusion of surf-style tune and wacky imagery. Even the titles of some of the songs like There's A Moon In The Sky (Called The Moon) conjure up an endearing innocence.
The B52s would go on to bigger and better things, but they'd never quite capture the early glory days.
RISQUE by CHIC (First entered the charts 18th August 1979)
Those good times of Summer 1979 can be summed up by this Chic classic.
Good Times is presented here in extended glory, eight and a bit minutes of pure dance heaven. Another lengthy workout follows, the atmospheric bliss of A Warm Summer's Night. I've listened to this one while sitting in the garden while supping on an ice cool beer as the Summer sun goes down, and there's nothing quite like it.
But as with all great records, scratch the smiley surface and there's something more forlorn. The second side of the album contains some really downbeat lyrics: Can't Stand To Love You is a riposte from a mistreated lover fighting her corner against a two-timing, pervy rotter. Will You Cry (When You Hear This Song) ends a relationship in suitably downbeat fashion.
Plus, there's the band's piece-de-resistance, My Forbidden Lover – boosted even further by sinister sounding strings playing in an eerily precise manner.
Quite why this album didn't do better is anybody's guess. It's one of the finest disco LPs ever made.
DRUMS AND WIRES by XTC (First entered the charts 1st September 1979)
After early baby steps into the big wide world of the charts, XTC finally walk and run with the excellent Drums And Wires album in 1979. The lead single, Making Plans For Nigel, was the band's biggest hit to date, a song about an overbearing mum and dad ensuring that their beloved son's future was in British Steel.
The hit sums up the difference in approach between the two main XTC men, Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding. Making Plans For Nigel is the work of Moulding, whose other songs look at the everyday and sometimes mundane rituals of life. Day In Day Out watches the clock in a dreary working environment (“Friday is heaven”), while That Is The Way studies the tedium of social etiquette (from smart dress to eating properly).
Partridge's offerings crackle with jerky energy. Helicopter mimics the sound of a vehicle, with its whooshing, fast-paced drumbeat. When You're Near Me I Have Difficulty recalls those nervy days of a shy wannabe lover wanting to be with the girl of his dreams. The tribal chant and minimal lyricism of Roads Girdle The Globe is a hymn to OTT car worship.
But there are plenty of other welcome surprises when the band takes it down a notch. Ten Feet Tall is a lovely song of love, revelling in its understatement. Millions, meanwhile, is an equally charming thankyou to the XTC fanbase.
Extras on the CD version include the brilliant Life Begins At The Hop – one of those songs that should have been a much bigger hit.
EAT TO THE BEAT by BLONDIE (First entered the charts 13th October 1979)
Controversial opinion. I personally don't rate Parallel Lines that much.
It's a good but not great Blondie album, surpassed by the punkier vibes of Plastic Letters and the superior pop rock of Eat To The Beat. Boosted by a few (admittedly very good) hit singles, Parallel Lines suffers from too many half-arsed knock-offs such as I Know But I Don't Know and Just Go Away.
Eat To The Beat, in me humble, is much better. Cutting down on the twee synthesisers while adding that extra raw edge from the early days of the band, Eat To The Beat is bursting at the seams with great songs.
There's a greater sense of providing something for everyone, with the rougher edges of the title track and the primal wailing of Living In The Real World through to the disco of Atomic. As well as this and the other fine singles Dreaming and Union City Blue, many of the other tracks could have successfully entered the charts. Die Young Stay Pretty... Slow Motion... The Hardest Part... still an album that holds up well 40 years after reaching the top slot in the LP charts.
REGGATTA DE BLANC by THE POLICE (First entered the charts 13th October 1979)
Not a trendy choice by any means, but then I've never been one for following fashion, meself.
Reggatta De Blanc is a consistently strong run of great tracks that showcase The Police at their finest. Later Police albums such as Zenyatta Mondatta and Ghost In The Machine do lose their way with the odd bit of meaningless padding, but there's no sense of that with Reggatta. Each of the 11 songs has much to offer – even the token instrumental title track, which seems to be a tribute to Eeyore the donkey (“Eeeee-yoooooore, Eeeee-yoooooore, Eeeee-yooo-yooore,” hollers Sting throughout).
Other highlights include the frantic It's Alright For You (performed by the band on The Kenny Everett Television Show), the ominous gloom of Deathwish, and the unusual poem of unrequited love, Does Everyone Stare. Plus, there's the two massive Number One singles, Message In A Bottle and Walking On The Moon!
THE SPECIALS by THE SPECIALS (First entered the charts 3rd November1979)
An outstanding debut, The Specials' first LP is one of the finest ska albums ever produced.
Helmed by a certain Elvis Costello, The Specials draws in many other genres alongside ska, such as reggae, pop, and rock. There are some enjoyable cover versions, including Toots & The Maytals' Monkey Man and Andy & Joey's You're Wondering Now (which is the theme music from Death In Paradise).
The original songs are no slouches either. Commenting on contemporary life with brilliantly wry and well-observed lyrics, The Specials take on the horrors of the Nite Klub (where the “beer tastes just like piss”) and the Concrete Jungle. Fair enough, the live version of Too Much Too Young is better than the laboured studio version which does drag on too long, but other than that, there's no complaints at all.
EXTENSIONS by THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER (First entered the charts 17th November 1979)
The previous year saw The Manhattan Transfer build on their success with the equally strong Pastiche. Extensions continues the run of success, by branching out from The Manhattan Transfer's traditional doo-wop into other musical avenues.
Pop and even disco feature more prominently here. In the case of the latter, the group's take on the Twilight Zone theme tune proved to be a popular experiment, doing well in both British and American charts. Even the amusingly OTT video pre-empts the upcoming new Doctor Who title sequence, with disembodied, floating heads gurning their way through space.
The album's also known for its take on Weather Report's classic Birdland. Putting vocals to the 1977 tune, The Manhattan Transfer do a damn fine job with this, even to the point where they use their vocals to mimic the instrumentation of the original.
Other high-points include the breezy pop philosophy of Nothin' You Can Do About It, the fun Wacky Dust and – not forgetting their jazz/doo-wop roots – the closing vocal charms of Foreign Affair.
LONDON CALLING by THE CLASH (First entered the charts 22nd December 1979)
Some double albums would make for far better single albums, with some of the filler fat trimmed away. The Clash's London Calling, however, fully deserves its status as one of the best double albums ever made.
There's not one bit of filler here, containing some of the band's most essential material. From the opening title track call to arms to the hidden Train In Vain closer, London Calling runs the whole gamut of styles. Far from the punk tag of 1977, The Clash had spread their wings into other musical spheres such as jazz (the woozy swing of Jimmy Jazz), Wall Of Sound (The Card Cheat), rockabilly (Brand New Cadillac) and reggae (Rudie Can't Fail).
The enduring appeal of London Calling would be seen in its samples by future artists. Beats International would use the inimitable beat of Guns Of Brixton for Dub Be Good To Me, while Rizzle Kicks would sample Revolution Rock for When I Was A Youngster.