Wednesday, August 29, 2018

McQ's Best Of 1977 Vol 1 - BEST OF THE BEST

1977.  What a year in music!

Or just like Muddy says in the song that opens this year's retrospective collection - "Oh, Yeah!"

After spending the last 13 months listening down to the best this pivotal year in rock's evolution has to offer, I think the quote that summarizes 1977 best actually came three-fourths of a century earlier, in Charles Dicken's A Tale Of Two Cities, that being...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

On the excitement front, punk and to a lesser degree new wave exploded in 1977, in what probably remains the single greatest year for the genre.  Reggae was smack dab in the middle of incredibly fruitful late 70s period. Fleetwood Mac proved that just because their rock was soft and accessible didn't mean it couldn't be great, and in bars and roadhouses and pubs around the world, bands were following Springsteen's lead in showing there was still plenty of gold to be mined from rock tradition. Disco, on the heels of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, was enjoying one last year of peak popularity before its precipitous demise, and off in Europe, especially Berlin, the likes of David Bowie, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, Kraftwerk, Jean Michael Jarre, Cerrone, and Giorgio Moroder were crafting a set of radically new sonic palettes that in the final analysis might have been 1977's most influential work of all.

On the downside, there was a seemingly bottomless supply of dreck in 1977 as well, most of it hugely popular at the time.

Prog rock had devolved from an already suspect start a decade earlier into an at times comically bad (but also in some way endearing) bastardized, Americanized AM form. Hard rock and Heavy Metal, while immensely popular and not without signature albums and classic singles during the year, was overall closing in on the bottom of the well as to just how dumb and juvenile music could be (and not in a good way like The Ramones).  And Pop, dear lord, Pop music completely lost its bounce in 1977, clearing the way for a barrage of cringe-inducing singer-songwriter ballads, cross-over country duds, and bland midtempo soft-rockers, every last one of them slathered in what just might be the worst guitar tone trends of any rock 'n' roll era from the 1950s to present day.

So yeah, I don't think there's another year in rock history that was so over-the-top loaded with both brilliance and cheese, vision and inanity, in such equal measure, and over the next fourteen volumes we'll take a listen to and celebrate it all.

But first, as always, before diving into the themed mixes, we start with a mix of tracks representing my very favorite singles and albums of the year.

So here we go, the 1977 edition of Best Of The Best....

On The Songs:

1. Mannish Boy - Muddy Waters: Like many of you, I've always loved this song, but I had no idea this iconic version was actually a late career redo of an earlier Chess recording. Taken from the fantastic, down and dirty, Johnny Winter-produced Hard Again, while not a song one normally associates with 1977, it just felt like the perfect collection opener.

2. Psycho Killer - Talking Heads: One can argue which version is better, the original here from the band's debut, or the ace live version recorded for Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense seven years later, but at the end of the day there is just no denying this early new wave classic, or the equally fantastic quirky gem of an album on which it arrived.

3. Sheep - Pink Floyd: I'm probably in the minority here, but the Roger Waters dominated riff on Orwell's Animal Farm that is Animals has always been my second favorite Floyd album after Dark Side Of The Moon.  It just works a little more consistently for me on a musical level than Floyd's other classics like Pipers, Wish You Were Here, or The Wall. As to why I choose Sheep over the equally excellent Dogs or Pigs, that's a secret only a select few of my best college friends will ever know.

4. Teenage Lobotomy - The Ramones: The Ramones 1976 self-titled debut usually lands higher in the all-time polls, but I've always felt the more tuneful and playful Rocket To Russia was the band's apex. Most of the songs on Rocket went on to form the soundtrack for the Roger Cormen cult classic Rock and Roll High School two years later, and amongst all the puerile greatness found on the album, with apologies to Sheena Is A PunkTeenage Lobotomy has always stood out to me as the band's single finest and most quintessential song, the ultimate musical personification of young male stupidity.

5. Brick House - The Commodores: Yeah, I know. The lyrical focus here ain't exactly a good fit with 2017.  But at the end of the day, with the possible exception of Parliament's Flashlight, was a better funk groove laid down to vinyl in 1977, with cooler funk vocals?  I think not.

6. Alison - Elvis Costello: My favorite comment I've ever read about Elvis Costello came in a Rolling Stone retrospective some years back, in which the writer opined that few rock artists have ever emerged so fully formed as Costello.  Armed with an innate mastery of just about every trick in the rock 'n' roll playbook, this album, which so dexterously straddle punk rock, new wave, pub rock, and trad rock was an instant classic, and in the bittersweet Alison, it's only ballad, produced one of the most timelessly romantic songs of the era, even though that romanticism is actually conveyed through the prism of a failed romance.

7. See No Evil - Television: Of all the punk acts to emerge in 1977, Television is without question the most unusual and atypical. Their songs were neither short nor particularly political or angry, and unlike most of the other punk acts of the day, they could flat-out play. They felt no disdain for the guitar solo either... hell, they jammed, leading many in the day to consider them the "Grateful Dead" of the New York punk scene. And yet, with their knotted, twisted, jazz-inflected guitar attack and twitchy, nasally vocals, there was still something decidedly punk about them.  The epic ten-minute title track has always been the cut historians latch onto from this landmark album, but for me, the highlight has always been the album's opener included here.  Along with Teenage Lobotomy and Alison and a pair of tracks to come later in this mix, See No Evil is one of my personal all-time top fifty songs.

8. Solsbury Hill - Peter Gabriel: The last song to make the cut on this mix, Solsbury Hill was the first single of Gabriel's solo career, released just a short time after leaving Genesis. Not surprisingly, given where Gabriel was at this moment, a sense of reflection, taking stock, and hope for the future dominates the song, and that sense struck a chord with listeners as well.  It would remain Gabriel's most popular song until the album So blew up the charts nine years later.

9. Submission - The Sex Pistols: "Submission over Anarchy?" you say. "Are you crazy?" No I am not. Not because Anarchy isn't the best song on this all-time classic that has aged way better than it has any right to, but because Anarchy was first released as a single midway through 1976, and is presently considered in consensus polls the #1 song of that year.  I will occasionally steal from the year prior for these mixes when the song actually peaked on the charts in the year under consideration, as I do on an upcoming disco mix with Disco Inferno and A Fifth Of Beethoven, but not the overall #1 song of a different year. That left a tight four way race between this track, Holiday In The Sun, God Save The Queen, and Pretty Vacant, and Submission just worked the best here.

10. Go Your Own Way - Fleetwood Mac: While possibly the finest song Lindsay Buckingham ever wrote for Fleetwood Mac, Go Your Own Way is just one of so many songs I could have gone with here to represent what has arguably proven over time to be the greatest and most enduring soft rock record ever.

11. Complete Control - The Clash: Though included on the 1979 American re-release of the Clash's self-titled debut, Complete Control was originally released as a single, which meant, in keeping with British tradition of the era, that it could not appear on the original UK release of the album. Regardless, this song is an awesome representation of the fierce political fire that hallmarked so many of the Clash's early recordings.

12. One Love / People Get Ready - Bob Marley And The Wailers: Damn, does this song come from one unbelievable reggae album - could Exodus be top three all-time in the genre along with The  Harder The Come soundtrack and the Wailers own earlier effort Burning? Maybe. But what's most interesting here is how much warmer the tone of this album is compared to that earlier Wailer efforts.  The political side still surfaces from time to time, but most of this album is focused on togetherness and community and celebration. Like Rumors, could've gone with so many tracks from this album, but this track so nails the album's open-armed, communal vibe that in the end I had to go with it.

13. Stayin' Alive - The Bee Gees: I'll be the first to admit I'm not the world's biggest disco fan, but excluding a cut from this album on 1977's Best Of The Best would be like excluding a track from Sgt. Pepper's or Thriller in their respective years, and of all the cuts on this soundtrack, as fun as so many are, and with the one possible exception of Disco Inferno, Stayin' Alive is the clear standout.

14. Annie - Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane: The most underrated album of 1977. Easy call.  Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane's Rough Mix. As the title implies, it's basically a grab bag of  Lane and Townshend songs with little interplay between the two artists, but despite the album's scattershot nature, it really hangs together. Many of the Townshend songs- Keep Me TurningMy Baby Gives It Away, the comical ditty Misunderstood, and the blazing instrumental title track - rank among his best solo efforts,  but it's the rustic, plaintive Lane ballads, built around his one-of-a-kind carnival barker voice, that really brings the magic, and of those tracks, Annie here is the most indelible of all, another one of my personal all-time top 50 songs.

15. Lust For Life - Iggy Pop: 1977 was the biggest year of Iggy Pop's post-Stooges career, the year in which he released not just his best solo effort ever, represented by the title track here, but also the second best album of his solo career, the aptly named, David Bowie produced The Idiot, which we'll visit in depth in a later mix.

16. Paradise By The Dashboard Light - Meat Loaf: Okay, maybe another controversial choice here, a song and album that has many detractors, but I stand the choice. I've always found this song to be one of the all-time camp classics, very much of a piece with the work on The Rocky Horror Picture Show Meat Loaf did a year or two earlier, and however silly some may find this song, I think the dynamics as it shifts from passage to passage, including legendary baseball announcer Phil Rizzuto's double-entendre call, which he claimed (falsely by most accounts) to not know how it would be used when he recorded it, are just exceptionally well executed.

17. Heroes - David Bowie: As with Iggy, 1977 was a monster year for Bowie, after retreating to Berlin with Brian Eno to produce a pair of incredibly influential half avant-garde pop/half instrumental  albums, Low and the follow up Heroes, that as alluded to above, pretty much created the "skronky" electronic vocabulary for so many electronic and synth acts to follow. Low is generally regarded in most circles as the edgier and better of the two albums, and it may be, but I've always preferred the slightly more accessible Heroes and it's staggeringly great title track, possibly the high point in the entirety of Bowie's massive catalog, and the last of my personal all-time top 50 tracks to land on this mix.