150 Best Albums of 1981

First to address the pachyderm in the parlor (mastodon in the master bedroom?), yes it is obviously true that “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “Waiting on a Friend” are, functionally, the exact same power ballad. But that doesn’t mean Foreigner’s 4 is as good as the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You, even if “Emotional” by Loverboy was the year’s best Stones song. And “Emotional” isn’t even the best song on Get Lucky! That’d be “Working for the Weekend, ” duh — If that wasn’t obvious, get with the program already.

Rock dinosaurs sure did. If nothing else, 1981 was an excellent year for old dogs learning new wave tricks — Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason luring Chris Spedding and Robert Wyatt and Carla Bley, ZZ Top and J. Geils Band channeling Captain Beefheart and the B-52s, Rush taking notes from Devo and the Police, Neil Young serving up mashed potatoes if not T-bones as grimy as a CBGB toilet, psychedelic relics Red Crayola collaborating with a conceptual art collective for Rough Trade Records on songs ostensibly about Lenin and Trotsky and Plekhanov, old 13th Floor Elevator Roky Erickson out-zombifying the Cramps, old Jagger (as in not “Start Me Up” but 1970’s “The Rapper” which had nothing to do with rap music) Donnie Iris fronting Pittsburgh’s answer to the Cars, old Hot Tunas Jack Casady and Nick Buck sharing San Francisco stages with the Nuns, Crime and Avengers in their new trio SVT.

And in fact 1981 seems to have been a good year in general for album-oriented rockers sharpening their sounds with concise sensibilities inherited from pop or punk. In the U.K. this development manifested itself as the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal, represented in the survey below by Girlschool, Def Leppard and Motörhead, though plenty more earned their leather. In America, meanwhile, Oregon Benatar-on-Baker Street smoothies Quarterflash and Maryland AC/DC-meets-Cars trixters Kix (and Loverboy if Canada counts) joined tuneful veterans like Joan Jett, Blue Öyster Cult, Billy Squier (ex-Sidewinder and Piper now stroking funky), Van Halen and Riot (and Journey I suppose, though “Don’t Stop Believin'” saturation compels me never to put on their not-awful chart-topping Escape again.) Foreigner, now assisted by Thomas Dolby and Junior Walker, had feet in both nations. AC/DC themselves had a famously cannon-covered #1 album in 1981 as well, even if fellow Aussies Rose Tattoo, Cold Chisel and two-sistered Vanda & Young charges Cheetah all rocked down under with more distinction.

But what the heck, let’s talk U.S. vs U.K. some more, shall we? Curious who had a more new wave year, I opted to seek quantification. Leaving out potential crossovers from the r&b and metal realms (but leaving in potential crossovers to same), I count maybe 28 LPs by Yanks (including the central Indiana Red Snerts compilation and two August-Darnell-dominated various-artist collections on dance-oriented Ze Records) and 21 by Brits. But adjusting for population (229.5 million US at the time, 56.5 million UK), that actually makes England and its kingdom-mates more than three times as fertile per capita assuming my math is right. So let’s do a Union Jack rollcall: Chas Jankel times two, Gang of Four times two, triple-album second-time Pazz & Jop victors the Clash, Scotland’s Fire Engines, ska expanders English Beat and Specials, kinky synth pervs Depeche Mode and Fad Gadget and Soft Cell, dreadlocked metal-dubbers Basement 5 with their misleadingly titled non-anthology 1965-1980, the Fall, Rip Rig + Panic, Raincoats, Alternative TV, Psychedelic Furs, Killing Joke, Heaven 17, Au Pairs, old timer already Elvis Costello way lower on the list than I expected — whew! And again, this leaves out not only three aformentioned NWOBHM bands and pre-punk ancients the Stones but also sadly short-lived Britfunk Jheri-curlers Linx (no less new wave-sounding than Chas Jankel really) and Guyana-born/London-raised Eddy Grant, with one of a possibly never equalled three reggae albums in my top 30.

As you may have noticed, my roundup includes a number of albums at the punk/funk/new wave/disco “dance-oriented-rock” juncture — Not just Was (Not Was) and the rest of the Ze cabal, but ex-Ian Dury sideman (in both Blockheads and Kilburn & the High Roads) Jankel, the Clash (“Magnificent Seven” #21 on Billboard‘s dance chart!), Talking Heads refugees Tom Tom Club (“Genius of Love”/”Wordy Rappinghood” #1 on Billboard‘s dance chart!), J. Geils believe it or not (WGPR Electrifyin’ Mojo Midnight Funk Association airplay for “Flamethrower”!), Prince at his new-waviest, Kraftwerk at their funkiest, Gang of Four at their heaviest, Funkadelic at their most harmolodic, self-proclaimed punk-funker Rick James at the peak of his meager if super-freaky powers, Dinosaur L (a/k/a Arthur Russell at his most Was [Not Was]-like), accidental South Bronx post-punk siblings ESG, Grace Jones covering the Police and Flash & the Pan and Iggy/Bowie when she wasn’t pulling up to bumpers, jazz-metal guitar giant James Blood Ulmer, a pair of albums by Japanese techno originators Yellow Magic Orchestra…I probably missed a couple, but you get the idea. This was definitely a Thing.

No wonder I was moved to complain in print at the time about the lack of Black artists on University of Missouri’s radio station — It wasn’t just a matter of fairness; it’s that modern music (or whatever you call it) in 1981 made no sense without them. And yet, like even the most open-minded skinny tie-wearers (say, ones who preferred New York Rocker to the way more Anglophile Trouser Press), not to mention the most open-minded white rock critics, I was still oblivious to just how deep the backbench of current Black pop was at the time. Particularly not particularly hip but consistently crafty mainstream r&b with a close to 100% Black audience: Kleeer, Slave, Maze, Skyy, Change, Tierra, Rene & Angela, Fatback, Cameo, Klymaxx, Klique, Richard “Dimples” Fields, the Debarges, not to mention Southern soul survivor Z.Z. Hill, not-as-past-their-prime-as-you’d-think Chic and token Caucasian Teena Marie, who I didn’t know beyond “Square Biz” at the time.

Toward the end of that college newspaper screed, I namecheck a couple mysterious up-and-coming genres that may or may not have actually existed. By “punk jazz” I think I meant stuff like the Lounge Lizards, Material, Contortions and James Blood Ulmer (and Carla Bley?); “new music” (as in the reliable Bley-founded-in-’72 mail order source New Music Distribution Service) meant 20th Century post-classical-ish stuff like Laurie Anderson’s hit novelty composition “O Superman,” or albums below by Robert Ashley, Meredith Monk and Philip Glass (or just-misseds by Alvin Lucier and Glen Branca.)

Confusing, because the annual New Music Seminar, just born in New York in 1980, implied nothing of the sort — In record biz parlance, for a few years or so, “new music” just meant anything derived from what used to be called “new wave,” or what would later be called “modern” then “alternative” rock. Including, say, the under-acknowledged phenomenon of L.A. bands mixing punk and blues and politically incorrect pretensions of noir horror in ways that suggested they secretly wanted to be the Doors. Couples counseling candidates X (who’d covered “Soul Kitchen” a year before) were clearly the head of that class, but I’d also include the Alley Cats, Wall of Voodoo, and the Flesh Eaters, plus the Gun Club whose scrawny Fire of Love didn’t quite make the cut. Heck, even toss in Lester Bangs and the Delinquents if being born near San Diego counts.

Robert Christgau, in his 1981 Pazz & Jop essay, references kvetches by not only the soon-late Bangs (“such a dismal year that I cannot in good conscience vote for more than two or three albums”) but also then Boston Phoenix editor Kit Rachlis: “Not a great record in the bunch, no record so fierce and reckless and nimble that it will affect listeners just as strongly in five or 10 years as it does now.” No idea what they’re talking about. My favorite 1981 album atypically happens to be the same “great” one Christgau reveals later in his piece, the one that topped his list and sequel to my favorite 1980 album. Christgau nonetheless allows that maybe 1981 wasn’t a year for “greatness,” but to me that only underscores once again what a useless concept greatness is. None of the albums below is perfect; no album is. But five or 10 times eight or four (= 40) years down the line, they’re still all worth spinning. Isn’t that what records are for?

  1. Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 (Sugar Hill)
  2. Teena Marie It Must be Magic (Gordy)
  3. Was (Not Was) Was (Not Was) (Island/Ze)
  4. Seize The Beat (Dance Ze Dance)/Mutant Disco (Island/Ze)
  5. Stampfel & Weber Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder)
  6. Clint Eastwood & General Saint Two Bad DJ (Greensleeves UK)
  7. Linx Intuition (Chrysalis)
  8. Carla Bley Social Studies (Watt/ECM)
  9. Boney M Boonoonoonoos (Hansa Germany)
  10. Kleeer License to Dream (Atlantic)
  11. Quarterflash Quarterflash (Geffen)
  12. Rose Tattoo Assault & Battery (Mirage)
  13. Kix Kix (Atlantic)
  14. Nick Mason Fictitious Sports (Columbia)
  15. Slave Showtime (Cotillion)
  16. Maze featuring Frankie Beverly Live in New Orleans (Capitol)
  17. Prince Controversy (Warner Bros.)
  18. Chas Jankel Questionnaire (A&M)
  19. A Christmas Record (Ze France)
  20. The Fall Slates (Rough Trade UK EP)
  21. Arthur Blythe Blythe Spirit (Columbia)
  22. Unlimited Touch Unlimited Touch (Prelude)
  23. The J. Geils Band Freeze Frame (EMI America)
  24. ZZ Top El Loco (Warner Bros.)
  25. Black Uhuru Red (Mango)
  26. John Anderson John Anderson 2  (Warner Bros.) 
  27. Eddy Grant Live at Notting Hill (Ice UK)
  28. Pylon !! (Armageddon UK EP)
  29. Kraftwerk Computer World (Warner Bros.)
  30. Funkadelic The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.)
  31. X Wild Gift  (Slash)
  32. Skyy Skyy Line (Salsoul)
  33. Yellow Magic Orchestra Technodelic (Alfa Japan)
  34. Chic Take it Off (Atlantic)
  35. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts I Love Rock n Roll (Boardwalk)
  36. Go-Gos Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.)
  37. The Blasters The Blasters (Slash)
  38. Phases of the Moon: Traditional Chinese Music (CBS Masterworks)
  39. The Suburbs Credit in Heaven (Twin/Tone)
  40. Rip Rig + Panic God (Virgin/Uh Huh Prods UK)
  41. Robert Ashley Perfect Lives (Private Parts): Music World Fire and I Would Do it Again (Coo Coo) (Lovely)
  42. Merle Haggard Big City (Epic)
  43. Lester Bowie The Great Pretender (ECM)
  44. Girlschool Hit and Run (Bronze UK)
  45. ESG ESG (99 EP)
  46. Gang of Four Solid Gold (Warner Bros.)
  47. Felá Anikũlapo Kuti Black President (Arista UK) 
  48. The Raincoats Odyshape (Rough Trade)
  49. The Clash Sandinista! (Epic)
  50. Amarcord Nino Rota (Hannibal)
  51. Blue Öyster Cult Fire of Unknown Origin (Columbia)
  52. Z.Z. Hill Down Home Blues (Malaco) 
  53. Rosanne Cash Seven Year Ache (Columbia)
  54. Change Paradise (Atlantic)
  55. Alternative TV Strange Kicks (I.R.S.)
  56. The Swimming Pool Q’s Deep End (DB Recs)
  57. Dinosaur L 24 24 Music (Sleeping Bag)
  58. Hit Machine (Arcade Germany)
  59. The Brains Electronic Eden (Mercury)
  60. Johnny and the Distractions Let it Rock (A&M)
  61. Billy Squier Don’t Say No (Capitol)
  62. Prince Charles and the City Beat Band Gang War (Solid Platinum)
  63. Grace Jones Nightclubbing (Island)
  64. Boney M Christmas Album (Hansa Germany)
  65. Human Switchboard Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products)
  66. Factrix Schientot (Adolescent)
  67. Meredith Monk Dolmen Music (ECM)
  68. Chas Jankel Chas Jankel (A&M)
  69. Van Halen Fair Warning (Warner Bros.)
  70. Fire Engines Aufgeladen und Bereut fur Action und Spass (Fast Product America)
  71. Philip Glass Glassworks (CBS) 
  72. The English Beat Wha’ppen (Sire)
  73. MX-80 Sound Crowd Control (Ralph)
  74. DNA A Taste of DNA (American Clavé EP)
  75. Tierra Together Again (Boardwalk)
  76. Lester Bangs and the Delinquents Jook Savages on the Brazos (Live Wire)
  77. Gang of Four Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros. EP)
  78. The Alley Cats Nightmare City (Time Coast)
  79. Rick James Street Songs (Gordy)
  80. Riot Fire Down Under (Elektra)
  81. Depeche Mode Speak & Spell (Sire)
  82. Brian Eno + David Byrne My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (Sire)
  83. Rush Moving Pictures (Mercury)
  84. The Specials Ghost Town (Chrysalis EP)
  85. Kim Wilde Kim Wilde (EMI)
  86. Loverboy Get Lucky (Columbia)
  87. Neil Young & Crazy Horse Re-Ac-Tor (Reprise)
  88. Def Leppard High ’n’ Dry (Mercury)
  89. Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft Gold und Liebe (Virgin Germany)
  90. Rolling Stones Tattoo You (Rolling Stones)
  91. The Psychedelic Furs Talk Talk Talk (Columbia)
  92. Ramones Pleasant Dreams (Sire)
  93. Rene & Angela Wall to Wall (Capitol)
  94. Roky Erickson and the Aliens The Evil One (415)
  95. Fad Gadget Incontinent (Mute UK)
  96. Irakere Chekeré Son (Milestone)
  97. Village People Renaissance (RCA)
  98. Red Snerts: The Sound of Gulcher (Gulcher)
  99. Fatback Gigolo (Spring)
  100. Iron City Houserockers Blood on the Bricks (MCA)
  101. Cameo Knights of the Sound Table (Chocolate City)
  102. Pearl Harbour Don’t Follow Me, I’m Lost Too (Warner Bros.)
  103. Klymaxx Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman (Solar)
  104. Klique It’s Winning Time (MCA)
  105. Richard “Dimples” Fields Dimples (Boardwalk)
  106. SVT No Regrets (Mutiny Shadow International)
  107. The Fools Heavy Mental (EMI America)
  108. Soft Cell Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret (Some Bizarre/Sire)
  109. Crack the Sky Photoflamingo (Lifesong)
  110. Yellow Magic Orchestra BGM (A&M)
  111. Metal Urbain Les Hommes Morts Sont Dangereux (Celluloid France)
  112. R.L. Crutchfield’s Dark Day Exterminating Angel (Infidelity)
  113. The Debarges The Debarges (Gordy)
  114. Wall of Voodoo Dark Continent (I.R.S.)
  115. Motörhead No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith (Mercury)
  116. Killing Joke What’s This For…! (Editions EG)
  117. Tom Tom Club Tom Tom Club (Sire)
  118. Diesel Watts in a Tank (Regency)
  119. Joe Ely Musta Notta Gotta Lotta (Southcoast/MCA)
  120. Chilliwack Wanna Be a Star (Millennium) 
  121. Basement 5 1965-1980 (Antilles)
  122. Yello Bostich (Stiff EP)
  123. Bruce Cockburn Inner City Front (Millennium) 
  124. Heaven 17 Penthouse and Pavement (Virgin UK)
  125. Au Pairs Playing With a Different Sex (Human UK)
  126. James Blood Ulmer Freelancing  (Columbia)
  127. Elvis Costello and the Attractions Trust (Columbia)
  128. The Flesh Eaters A Minute to Pray A Second to Die (Ruby)
  129. The Cramps Psychedelic Jungle ((I.R.S.)
  130. Donnie Iris King Cool (MCA/Carousel)
  131. David Lindley El Rayo-X (Asylum)
  132. Lindsey Buckingham Law and Order (Asylum)
  133. Hank Williams Jr. The Pressure is On (Elektra/Curb)
  134. The A’s A Woman’s Got the Power (Arista)
  135. James Booker New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! (Rounder)
  136. Urgh! A Music War (A&M)
  137. Cold Chisel East (Elektra)
  138. Leyden Zar Leyden Zar (A&M Canada)
  139. Landscape From the Tea Rooms of Mars…To the Hell-Holes of Uranus (RCA UK)
  140. Sound D’Afrique (Mango)
  141. Mother’s Finest Iron Age (Atlantic)
  142. Foreigner 4 (Atlantic)
  143. Earl Thomas Conley Fire & Smoke (RCA)
  144. Cheetah Rock & Roll Women (Atlantic)
  145. Champaign How ‘Bout Us (Columbia)
  146. The Radio Radiowave (Becket)
  147. Red Crayola with Art & Language Kangaroo? (Rough Trade)
  148. Black Flag Damaged (SST)
  149. Frankie Smith Children of Tomorrow (WMOT)
  150. Von Lmo Future Language (Strazar)

8 comments

  1. via facebook:

    Jim Macnie
    go, baby, go

    Mike Freedberg
    The Fall !!
    Eddie Grant !!!
    Tom Tom Club !!

    Jaz Jacobi
    In my mind, 1981 always seems like an island of Journey/REO/Loverboy trad-rock “revenge” on the more palpably “new wave” years surrounding it, but this list is much more quirk-rocking AND funkier than I woulda anticipated [all of which you already said in your intro, but I’ve been superfluous before].

    Jaz Jacobi
    On the one hand, 1981 is when Billboard starts the AOR/”mainstream rock” chart, so that category seems to be perceived as a huge, huge thing worth tracking as its own thing. On the other hand, though, I was thinking about how many of the ’70s “classic rock” fixtures have been thought of, at the time or since then, as in decline, in popularity and/or quality, around 1981-82: Heart, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, Nugent…even Kiss cashed in on the ultimate gimmick and gave up on makeup.

    Steve Pick
    1981 was the last year before I discovered record companies would send writers free copies of albums. In other words, it was the last year that radio, friends, and my limited purchasing ability controlled what I listened to in greater degree. As a result, of your top 20 albums, I only knew 2 at the time (Teena Marie and Prince). I sure disliked Quarterflash on the radio and when I saw them live a couple years later, but haven’t heard them in at least 35 years, so maybe you’re right, and it is a good record.

    Steve Pick
    I didn’t hear the first Was (Not Was) album back in the day, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard it since, despite being a big fan of their next three albums. I remain a fervent hater of everything by the Fall, except for one song on a 12 inch they put out in the late 80s, “Rollin’ Danny,” which turned out to be a cover. That band is probably as influentially responsible for as much bad music as the Grateful Dead would be.

    Steve Pick
    Numbers 21, 23, 24, 25, 26, and to a lesser extent 28 are all records I discovered and loved within a year or five of their release. I resisted X (number 31) until 1983, when they turned into one of my favorite bands of all time – I still think Under the Big Black Sun is their masterpiece. The Go-Go’s and the Blasters and the English Beat dominated my 1981, along with the Psychedelic Furs record you list way, way down the list. And Sandinista, which inspired a term paper I wrote in my senior year of college – I had the same English teacher freshman year, and convinced her by that point I was tired of writing about literature and movies, and I wanted to apply the auteur theory to the Clash.

    Steve Pick
    So many of the records on this list I discovered later – numbers 43, 50, 53, 56, 59. I was big on the Gang of Four at the time. I remember seeing the Alley Cats open for somebody at the time, but their record didn’t live up to what I experienced live. “Ghost Town” by the Specials – I first heard that on an episode of 20/20 about unemployment in England. I remember being thrilled about the music, and was too young and dumb to care about the story.

    Steve Pick
    Oh, you have Roky Erickson at number 94. I bet I played that album as much as anything in 1981 – Tony Renner, Artist had figured out that 415 Records would send promos to our little fanzine, and that was my fave of the bunch on that label.

    Steve Pick
    Oh, and of course, Trust by Elvis Costello was among my faves that year – and it remains indelibly imprinted in my mind. But, of course, you and I stopped seeing eye to eye on Elvis C. probably in 1978 or 79.

    Edd Hurt
    Real close to my take on ’81. The Ze comp is in my top 10, Chic also. Funkadelic, Kid Creole. A great year for funk and even blues, ZZ Hill. W great George Jones Chuck misses. “Dreamtime” and “Stands for deciBels” I still like a lot. Transitional year for rock, I guess

    Steve Pick
    Edd Hurt Damn! Stands for Decibels is one of my fave albums of the 80s, let alone just 1981. And Dreamtime is pretty great, too!

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  2. via facebook:

    Alfred Soto
    Wow — “Emotional” is a twin of the Stones’ “Respectable,” isn’t it, down to the yarl.

    David Allen Jones
    I don’t hear a similarity between “Waiting on a Friend” and “Waiting for a Girl like You”, but otherwise, interesting piece!

    David Allen Jones
    Love #’s 131 and 132, just to name a couple…

    Chuck Eddy
    Oh, I’m not saying the two Waiting slow AOR jams necessarily *sound* the same; just that I’ve never managed to not conflate them for four decades!

    David Allen Jones
    Maybe I just need to wait a while longer…

    Chuck Eddy
    That’s the hardest part.

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  3. via facebook:

    Edd Hurt
    Yeah, Steve Pick, I like the dB’s albums from ’81. “Repercussion” also hit that year. XTC’s “Black Sea” came out late in 1980, new wave Beatles. Marshall Crenshaw, Go-Betweens, all this sort of power poppy stuff beginning to appear. Big Star followers. The Soft Boys also. To a degree, it’s tangential in a year when you had Ze Records, Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson (2 1981 albums), Chic, etc. “Dreamtime” is a beautiful guitar record, but it’s also a bit tangential, maybe. Sort of that rabbit hole of abstraction power pop goes down, definitely Big Star and Game Theory go down it. Just seems like avant- and regular funk was where pop was groping for, and then early Americana roots new wave a la the Blasters album, which I like a lot myself.

    Edd Hurt
    Fwiw, I like “Trust” a lot and sometimes think it’s his best. But I always pull out a few things and skip some of it, the Warren Zevon imitation and the lame country shit. But at its best, up there with his best. If I had to pick one Costello, it’s “Imperial Bedroom,” his craziest and densest and most super-pop record. Some of it, when he’s not trying to be Cole Kern or Jerome Porter. 1981 is when new wave turns to genrification, then you got Costello in Nashville with Billy Sherrill and you’re on the road to Americana.

    Chuck Eddy
    As my intro suggests, I actually thought I liked Trust more than I apparently do, judging from relistening to it for the first time in years this month — Have always assumed it his best after Armed Forces; now I’m not so sure. As for all that post-Big Star power-deficient powerpop you guys are listing, I mostly and unsurprisingly have the same problem with it that I have with Big Star. Didn’t come on board with RS Jackson until Mandance in 1982.

    Chuck Eddy
    Also, given the (sorry) fuss-budget nature of Trust, dBs, XTC, Crenshaw, etc, surprised nobody’s complained I left out Squeeze’s East Side Story!

    Chuck Eddy
    Two questions, though: Steve, I’m curious what horrible music you think the Fall inspired. I know people credit (blame?) them for Pavement (Fall without Mark E. Smith or a great rhythm section?), but outside of that I guess I’ve never thought of them as particularly influential, beyond a few cool bands from the outskirts of England that almost nobody I know but me has ever heard of. And Edd, which Trust track is the Warren Zevon imitation? Guess I never made that connection. Also Steve, fwiw, the first Was (Not Was) album is really nothing like their later ones — much more a very weird, free-jazz-infused funk album (Electrifyin’ Mojo used to play “Out Come the Freaks” on WGPR in Detroit — maybe their even earlier Seize the Beat track “Wheel Me Out” too) than the novelty jokers they became. (They were always wiseasses, mind you — another Zappa-inspired band I’d much rather hear than Zappa.) I like the later stuff; love the earlier. YMMV.

    Edd Hurt
    I hear the Fall in Pavement for sure. I also hear Gram Parsons. Chuck Eddy, I call “Shot with His Own Gun” a Zevon rip on “Trust.”

    Chuck Eddy
    OK, that’s the one I was going to guess! “Now daddy’s keeping mum” — eesh.

    Edd Hurt
    I prefer Material to Was, a little. I think the first Material album is 1981? Good stuff.

    Edd Hurt
    Material’s “Temporary Music” is 1981. “One Down” is “82, a favorite of mine.

    Chuck Eddy
    Memory Serves is also ’82 (in the U.S.). I like both from that year. Though if nothing else, Material sure never had Was (Not Was)’s sense of humor.

    Edd Hurt
    Steve Pick, I do like a little Fall. I find it funny, groovy, great roadtrip music. Quite simple given its big debt to Beefheart. Their Kinks cover, “Victoria,” seems inevitable to me.

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  4. via facebook:

    Steve Pick
    Edd Hurt the song that Elvis C. put on the liner notes that Nick Lowe claimed no responsibility for, right? I never thought of Warren Zevon when I heard it, but I can kind of hear what you’re saying.

    Steve Pick
    Chuck Eddy I do enjoy East Side Story, though I liked Argybargy more. It’s interesting that you say fuss-budget about all these records I do love – to me, they are all musically adept, inventive, playful, and emotionally complex – some of my favorite things.

    Jaz Jacobi
    My ADD-plagued father-in-law, on *three* consecutive visits to my house, picked up my copy of STANDS FOR DECIBELS and asked each time, “What does ‘dB’s’ tand for?” And each time I just impatiently said, “Read…the…title.”

    Chuck Eddy
    Cool For Cats >>>> .UK Squeeze >>>> Argybargy>>>East Side Story (though I don’t mind “Tempted By The Fruit of Your Mother.”) By the way, Bilal has a new r&b cover of “Black Coffee in Bed” out, if anybody cares.

    Steve Pick
    I suspect I would love the first Was (Not Was) album – I knew it was more akin to, as Edd Hurt points out, Material than what they did later. And, yeah, they were a novelty band on their other records, but they were a) funny, and b) musically rich.

    Jaz Jacobi
    Girls Against Boys sound like the Fall more often than Pavement did to my ears–Pavement may have been more blatant about it, but I mostly remember that being pronouncedly true on maybe 2 or 3 songs?

    Edd Hurt
    I think the Fall played fine. How hard can it be? I don’t think they were trying to play Beefheart’s music. It’s a straighter version of some of its approaches.

    Jaz Jacobi
    I love just about everything the Fall did up to 1988, and after that it gets a little choppy for me, like many unmanageably huge catalogs.

    Chuck Eddy
    I’m with Jaz. Quite possibly my favorite alt-or-whatever band of the ’80s or later. And they never struck me as lacking anything they needed as musicians.

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  5. via facebook:

    Edd Hurt
    The first two dB’s albums are really great, just very musical, have more depth and way more idiosyncracy than Squeeze, and XTC is like Led Zeppelin, a virtuoso thing and not really fussy. I just can’t find anything bad to say about Marshall Crenshaw, a consummate artist, either. He’s the least subcultural (Squeeze being also real straightforward). But the dB’s weren’t made for the mass audience, and really Big Star was. Maybe pop gets a bit skewed to this insular thing in the early ’80s.

    Chuck Eddy
    I do like the first three XTC LPs, fwiw, especially Drums and Wires. They grew insufferably precious after that (or at least that was my response at the time), though Black Sea seemed passable and Skylarking’s very pretty.

    Jaz Jacobi
    I like BLACK SEA the best, but then the insufferable preciousness factor does kick in

    Jaz Jacobi
    I dunno if I would call TRUST as a totality my absolute fave Costello LP–it’s hard to analyze it as a “consistent” listening experience, it’s all over the place stylistically, though I also don’t think there’s a weak track to be found in my memory [unlike, I insist, MY AIM IS TRUE]–but there’s about 2 or 3 tracks I might single out as among my half-dozen or so fave Costello songs. “New Lace Sleeves” and “Big Sister’s Clothes” especially.

    Steve Pick
    Edd Hurt I’m speaking a little hyperbolically. I think it’s the idea that being weird is more important than making musical sense – that was never the case with Beefheart (or maybe it was once or twice), but that’s all I hear in anything by the Fall. With the caveat that I haven’t purposefully listened to anything by the Fall in something close to 30 years.

    Jaz Jacobi
    Chuck Eddy I used to have a ’90s book called MANIC POP THRILL that referred to the Fall as “the least pretentious band” or something like that, which struck me as an odd statement within my youthful understanding of what people usually mean by “pretentious,” they might be what most folks would think of as the very definition of art-damaged obscurantism. But over time I’ve really come to think about what seemingly was meant by this–the Fall were about as unfashionable and contrary and even working class an “art” band as you could ask for, in certain senses, like a more obtuse/abstract rendition of what Billy Childish gets up to. “Prole Art Threat,” indeed.

    Chuck Eddy
    Sounds about right, though I’m not sure I’ll ever decode the class language of British rock, once you get past Slade and oi! at least.
    T’

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  6. via facebook:

    Chuck Eddy
    I don’t understand what you mean by “musical sense,” unless you think rhythm isn’t music. And I don’t think being sui generis, unmistakable for anybody else, is the same as trying to be “weird”. The Fall were far more than Beefheart mimics — most obviously, there was a ton of Kraut rock (“I am…Damo Suzuki”) and garage and rockabilly in their sound. And I can’t think of a singer who came out the post-punk realm (i.e., ANYBODY set into gear by punk) with more life and personality in his voice than Mark E. Smith.

    Jaz Jacobi
    Also, and this notion is the backbone of my own writing, “being weird” is often the thing we respond to the MOST.

    Nathan Carson
    The Fall were shit-tight every time I saw them.

    Steve Pick
    Okay – next chance I get, I’ll listen to a Fall record for the first time in decades – what do you recommend, Chuck Eddy? Maybe actually hearing them will make it easier for me to explain why I hate them, or maybe I will change my mind. Who knows?

    Edd Hurt
    Chuck Eddy lays it out well. Beefheart, the two guitars, is one template for the Fall. Beefheart was a lot…jazzier, because that music was made by a group who rearranged Don’s ideas into those (incredibly intricate) structures. The Fall rocked out way more, it’s pretty straightforward. Rock ‘n’ roll.

    Chuck Eddy
    Steve Pick My favorite Fall albums are Live at the Witch Trials and Hex Enduction Hour. But This Nation’s Savings Grace and The Wonderful and Frightening World might be more “accessible”? Yet even those probably aren’t for everybody. I’d love to hear what you wind up thinking.

    Edd Hurt
    This seems like as good as any to start, poppy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?fbclid=IwAR10tU3_OndDCKaGwgKj2332NiAbQmy2EUCJB1FpZpm_zv-07P5FDIm-e3k&v=0qXV8aB3-fc&feature=youtu.be

    Steve Pick
    Chuck Eddy Okay, I just sat all the way through the original eleven tracks of Live at the Witch Trials (as opposed to the full-length 2 hour and 24 minute bloodbath available on Spotify, featuring tons of stuff they didn’t even think were good enough to release at the time). I was first struck by the fact that the rhythm section is way better than I remembered, though not as groovalicious as that in PiL, which this occasionally reminds me of, or Gang of Four, or the Dead Kennedys (two other bands that were probably influenced by this but had more inspiration). I know how easy it is to make music that sounds like this – I was in a band called Happy Chemicals, and we had songs we made up on stage that weren’t too different from many of the less punk influenced numbers on this album. (I remember one called Heavy Deco Art, which sounded more than a little like Two Steps Back, as I intoned “It’s not music, it’s art” over and over.) The guitars have that annoying tone that so many beginners in the post punk era favored. The keyboards are just plain silly – reminds me of the goofy things we used to come up with on our twelve note monophonic Casio keyboard we had in 1981. And Smith’s vocals don’t have a lot of spirit or bite – they are closer to Robert Smith than John Lydon, and I’m sure that would have hurt him to the core if I’d told him that in 1979. On first listen, I can’t say I caught many of the lyrics, but the music isn’t strong enough to make me want to pay another visit. Fun fact, though – you can sing “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” over the chords in Frightened.

    Chuck Eddy
    Well, I hear the PiL and “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone” similarities, at least. Never heard anything rhythmically special about Dead Kennedys, hmmm.

    ***********

    Nathan Carson
    Not seeing Prayers on Fire here feels like a big omission from ’81.

    Chuck Eddy
    You might well be right, Nathan! I really didn’t start paying close attention until Junkyard (and then Nick lost me entirely when he went solo.)

    Nathan Carson
    Prayers on Fire is my favorite Birthday Party. It’s when they found their sound, but also still included a lot of melody. Possibly my favorite album from ’81, which as you know included an incredible amount of truly great music!

    Nathan Carson
    And I don’t blame you for not being a Bad Seeds guy. I only like their live concert (which is pretty inarguably amazing). Never listen to them at home.
    But to me, the Birthday Party were the Beatles of noise.

    Chuck Eddy
    They could be great. I think you’re probably right this is an oversight. Damn it is hard to remember every album that came out 40 years ago.

    Nathan Carson
    Chuck Eddy of course! My list would look very insular compared to yours, which is wonderfully expansive.
    But I did want to vouch for Prayers on Fire because it’s such a high water mark in creative music making to me. Top shelf album.

    Steve Pick
    Hah! It’s no surprise, I would think, that the Birthday Party struck me as more or less like the Fall as something to avoid.

    Nathan Carson
    Are you not a Dio Sabbath guy? Iron Maiden – Killers?

    Chuck Eddy
    Nope, not really. Also not an Ozzy solo guy, for what that’s worth.

    Nathan Carson
    I love Diary of a Madman so much. To each their own!

    **********

    Darren Snow
    Steve Pick “Big Sister’s Clothes” was the one Nick was not “to blame” for. But damn, “Shot with His Own Gun” is easy to imagine in Zevon’s voice!

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    Steve Pick
    Chuck Eddy I don’t know about rhythmically special, but I guess I’d rather hear Holiday in Cambodia than anything here, and that song makes me want to move.

    Nathan Carson
    There are three main eras for The Fall which I think are best summed up by:
    1) Live at the Witch Trials
    2) This Nation’s Saving Grace
    3) Middle Class Revolt

    Jaz Jacobi
    I just bought the 2 1/2 hour bloodbath version of LIVE AT THE WITCH TRIALS! And my 3-CD version of the follow-up Fall album DRAGNET is currently in the mail.

    Chuck Eddy
    Okay, I don’t get that at all — Not because Fall, but because outtakes, which I never have any interest in. “Reissues” in 2021 make no sense to me.

    Jaz Jacobi
    I mostly just wanted to replace the CD I had previously, which was not only mastered directly from vinyl, but I believe some of the songs contain SKIPS!

    Nathan Carson
    Jaz Jacobi that’s the one I have. The left channel cuts out in places. So shitty.

    Jaz Jacobi
    Nathan Carson There’s a new issue of FALL IN A HOLE that I’m considering a re-purchase, for all these reasons just mentioned

    Jaz Jacobi
    Those flimsy UK vinyl pressings are mighty prone to skipping, I always found!

    *****

    Nathan Carson
    Steve Pick if you want to hear Beefheart, the Stooges, and Can in one band, it’s The Birthday Party. But their creative minimalism is on par with anyone’s, in my esteem.

    Steve Pick
    Nathan Carson it might be the Can that breaks the deal for me. That’s another band that does nothing for me

    Nathan Carson
    Either way, give Prayers on Fire a shot. It’s a unique album. Their Revolver.

    Nathan Carson
    Or there is a Greatest Hits that is well selected.

    Chuck Eddy
    Lots of Can in the Fall, too. Might help explain Steve’s aversion. (Though come to think of it, I’m not huge on Can myself — wish they did more short catchy songs like “I’m So Green.” Much prefer the Fall, overall.)

    Nathan Carson
    Yeah I own a lot of the Can catalog but I never put it on for fun. “She Brings the Rain” does get under my skin in a good way. And I really enjoyed reading their rock biography.

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  8. via facebook:

    Alfred Soto
    oh I LOVE your list

    Kembrew McLeod
    Chuck Eddy this was a great read!

    Diane Aguilar
    Chuck Eddy honestly I yawned at so much of your list. It reminded me of the old antipathy I used to feel at every single music critic around, except it was slightly ameliorated by some of your less “obviously white man bait” selections. So much of what music criticism was about when you originally formulated this list seemed to shut out the music women/girls tended to gravitate toward and I’ve always found that a bit on the sexist side. I feel like music criticism has improved somewhat in that direction in the past fifteen years and I don’t automatically hate all music critics the way I used to, but I feel like the damage has already been done as far as the music previous generations of women and girls would’ve found exceptional.

    Chuck Eddy
    Diane: Oh well. But actually, I formulated that list this year. And I dunno, I definitely see music on there that girls/women listen(ed) to. Also, you might well be the first person ever to suggest that my favorite music is “obvious.”

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