Shakedown 1979: The Strangest Year in Music

It gave us disco’s peak, new wave, rap, and a whole lot of weirdness.

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ABBA sings “Does Your Mother Know” (Photo: YouTube)

I just came across a 2014 countdown of the “Top 10 Years with the Best Music Released” on YouTube and after watching the 14-minute video, I must admit I was impressed. It’s certainly one of their most on-point shortlists.

Although I’m not as high on 2001 as they were and they left off my beloved 1978, I have to give them props for including four of my most significant years, 12-month periods that also produced some pretty stellar tunes: 1. The year I was born (number 1), 2. The year I graduated from high school (number 2), 3. The year I graduated from college (number 3), and 4.
The year I had a one-year subscription to Billboard magazine, a Christmas present from my mom the previous December 25 (number 6).

Drumroll, please …

10. 1995

9. 2001

8. 1999

7. 1970

6. 1984

5. 1977

4. 1979

3. 1991

2. 1987

Honorable Mentions: 2007, 1962, 1959, 1988, 1982

1. 1969

If I had to pick my favorite/the best years in music, I’d probably go with 1969, 1978, and 1984, and WatchMojo’s number 4 also would be high on my list, possibly even at number 4. According to the video, 1979 represented the “apex” of disco, “the arrival of the first rap song to gain widespread recognition” (“Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang), and it also was the year punk begat new wave — a birth that gave the world The Knack’s “My Sharona,” Billboard’s number-one Hot 100 song of 1979.

“My Sharona”

My appreciation of 1979, though, is less about songs that defined genres than songs that defied them and how it was such a perfect sequel to the year that came before it. At its most conventional, 1979 didn’t sound so different from 1978, only I never had Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Yearbook to document it.

In fact, without the assistance of Kasem’s countdowns, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you which songs belonged to which year. Walter Egan’s “Magnet and Steel,” ELO’s “Shine a Little Love,” Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife,” Chic’s “Good Times,” Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City”: 1978 or 1979? If Kasem’s Yearbook for 1978 hadn’t included every top 40 Billboard chart from that year, my guess might be as good as yours. (By the way, Gilder’s chart-topper debuted in 1978, but its hit run actually spanned both years.)

The significance of 1979, I must admit, is mostly in hindsight. I didn’t realize what an incredible year it was musically until about a decade later. Those were the last days of disco, but dance music as “disco” didn’t mean anything to me at the time because I wasn’t old enough to go clubbing. As meaningful “dance music” goes, the mid-’90s was my era, then and now. It rocked the party, my body and, for all I know, probably even the kasbah.

For me, 1979 stands out now for an entirely different reason than any mentioned by WatchMojo. It was the year that pop music got kind of weird: Kate Bush’s “Wow,” ABBA’s “Does Your Mother Know” (the group’s only hit to feature rock guitars and not to feature Agnetha and Frida singing lead), M’s “Pop Musik,” side four of Donna Summer’s massive Bad Girls album, and The Cure’s debut album, Three Imaginary Boys (released the day after my 10th birthday), none of which catered to the mainstream, were among the end-of-that-decade highlights.

The year began with Queen’s “Bicycle Race” ending its ride and concluded with Pretenders' “Brass in Pocket” (the first U.K. number one of the ’80s) gaining luster. None qualified as conventional pop at the time. All the aforementioned singles were top 20 hits on either or both sides of the pond, and Bad Girls was Summer’s biggest album ever.

The last year of the disco decade also introduced the U.S. and the U.K. to a number of soon-to-be influential left-of-center acts, via their notable debut albums and/or singles: The B-52’s’ The B-52’s, Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle and “Cars,” Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Madness’s One Step Beyond …, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Electricity,” Rickie Lee Jones’s Rickie Lee Jones, Simple Minds’ Life in a Day, and U2’s Three EP.

“Wow” Kate Bush

“Does Your Mother Know” ABBA

“Pop Musik” M

“Lucky” Donna Summer

“Fire in Cairo” The Cure

“Chuck E’s in Love” Rickie Lee Jones

“Cars” Gary Numan

The weirdness of 1979 is also evident in three albums released by veteran groups: Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown, Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, and Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk.

Each came from an act of non-American origin (pre-Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Fleetwood Mac’s lifespan began as a ’60s British blues-rock outfit), each produced three top 20 hits (all of which, in the case of Bees Gees, made it to number one), and each contained music that departed from the dominant sound of the time — whatever that was.

Yes, even Spirits Having Flown. Although it gave the Aussie sibling trio two number-one hits that are usually filed under disco — “Tragedy” and “Love You Inside Out,” the latter of which has just as much to do with funk — the bulk of the album actually had very little to do with the dance floor. And what lovely, awkward title.

Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” was the only single from its parent album that went top 10, and it came from the only one of the aforementioned three that didn’t scale Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. The follow-up to the massively successful 31-weeks-at-number-one Rumours, it peaked at a relatively lowly number four.

All these years later — 41, to be exact — these albums haven’t lost any of their luster, and Tusk, in particular, could still pass for a recent release. The last few decades, which have produced some of the most predictable mainstream pop of my lifetime, could have learned a lot from 1979.

“The Logical Song” Supertramp

“Tusk” Fleetwood Mac

“Spirits (Having Flown)” Bee Gees

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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