Monday, July 30, 2012

1978: The Best Year in Music Ever?

I never particularly cared for "1979," the 1996 Smashing Pumpkins single (and the band's biggest pop hit, with a No. 12 peak on Billboard's Hot 100). It had less do with the song's musical merit, or lack thereof, than it did with the fact that I always thought it was set one year too early.

Ah, 1978! The best year of my life -- at least the first decade of it! I can't pinpoint a specific reason why I remember 1978 so fondly. It's perhaps partly because 1977-1978 is the first period of my life that I can actually remember -- at least in more than bits and pieces. I couldn't tell you what I was doing exactly 34 years ago today, but for the most part, when 1978 replays in my mind, it's in feature-length motion pictures, not snapshots or short films.

And then there's the music: the songs I remember listening to all the time when I was riding with my mom and dad in our brown 1978 Ford Thunderbird. The year and its soundtrack would grow in significance six years later when I bought a book based on Casey Kasem's America's Top 40 radio countdown show that featured biographies and singles discographies (complete with peak positions) for every artist who hit the Top 40 that year. (A few vintage shirts aside, the book, currently locked in a cabinet in Buenos Aires, might be my oldest possession.)

It's strange how back then, in 1984, 1978 already seemed like such a long time ago -- far more distant than 2006 seems now. The Year of Big Brother, otherwise known as the year in which I had a subscription to Billboard magazine (a Christmas of '83 gift from my mom), was more memorable musically than 1978 because of my reading material, but by 1984, I was old enough to be a discerning music listener who loved songs based more on musical attributes than on overexposure. (We heard them on the radio, on TV, and on those K-Tel compilations that were the late-'70s early '80s equivalent of today's Now That's What I Call Music! series.) As a result, there are far more songs I love from 1978 than 1984.

Regardless of why I love them, though, all these years later, the best of 1978 sticks with me. Interestingly, many of the pop songs from 1978 that I remember most fondly were performed by either one-hit wonders or by artists who are more or less forgotten today. Here are 10 of many that are still in regular rotation on my iPod (a list I've been meaning to compile ever since I included Jefferson Starship's "Count on Me" and Ambrosia's "How Much I Feel," both '78 classics, in my Songs of Faith and Devotion post back in March).

"Hot Child in the City" Nick Gilder I always thought a woman sang it until I saw Gilder's picture in my Casey Kasem book.

"Magnet and Steel" Walter Egan I may have been only 8 going on 9, but even then, its sex appeal wasn't completely lost on me.

"Thunder Island" Jay Ferguson Honestly, I don't actually remember hearing this back in '78, but today I love the verses' faux-tropical-vacation feel, an amped of version of the wasting-away-in-margaritaville vibe that rubs me the wrong way in so many Jimmy Buffett songs.

"Change of Heart" Eric Carmen How strange that one of the more successful pop songwriters of the '70s and early '80s (at one point in the fall of '77, three of his compositions were on Billboard's Hot 100 at the same time) might be best known today for hit singles that borrowed from a dead classical composer whose work I was struggling to play during my piano lessons at the time (Rachmaninoff, quoted on "All By Myself" and "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again"), and a song from the Dirty Dancing soundtrack ("Hungry Eyes") that he didn't even write.

"Emotion" Samantha Sang Destiny's Child so didn't do it justice in 2001. Stick with Sang's original version of the song that Barry and Robin Gibb wrote for her, which was released in December of 1977 and covered on the B-side of Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams' 1978 No. 1 single "Too Much, Too Little, Too Late." Fun fact: Sang's 1978 Emotion LP featured her version of Carmen's "Change of Heart."

"I Love the Nightlife" Alicia Bridges I love the way she growls "ackSHUN!" (as in "action!") on the verses almost as much as I love the nightlife, too.

"You Belong to Me" Carly Simon For some reason, I can't listen to this song without thinking about Barbra Streisand's "My Heart Belong to Me," which was a Top 5 hit the previous year. I love how possessive the leading ladies of pop were back then. Coming right after 1977's "Nobody Does It Better," it was the second half of one of the best one-two singles punches in the history of recorded pop music.

"Talking in Your Sleep" Crystal Gayle Between hits by Dolly Parton ("Here You Come Again," "It's All Right, But It's Okay," "Heartbreaker"), Anne Murray ("You Needed Me," "I Just Fall in Love Again," "Shadows in the Moonlight," "Broken Hearted Me"), Olivia Newton-John ("Hopelessly Devoted to You"), Linda Ronstadt ("Blue Bayou") and Gayle ("Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," "When I Dream," "Half the Way" and this), 1977-1979 easily qualifies as the golden age of female crossover country-pop.

"Used ta Be My Girl" The O'Jays Along with 1977 hits by Barry White ("It's Ecstasy [When You Lay Down Next to Me]"), LTD ("Every Time I Turn Around [Back in Love Again]"), the Commodores ("Brick House") and Tavares ("More Than a Woman") and 1978 Top 40 singles by Teddy Pendergrass ("Close the Door") and Earth, Wind & Fire ("Fantasy"), this represented the best of late '70s male-sung soul music. (Fun fact: E,W&F's "Fantasy" has been covered by, among many others, Pedro Escovedo, the father of Sheila E. and Peter Michael Escovedo, the biological father of Nicole Richie, which makes her Sheila E.'s niece!)

"Sweet Talkin' Woman" Electric Light Orchestra After Chicago (whose "Baby What A Big Surprise" was released a few months too early to be featured here), ELO was easily my favorite pop-rock band of the '70s.

"Isn't It Time" The Babys It was technically released in 1977, but it had enough of a chart presence in '78 to be included in the Casey Kasem book, so I'm including it, too. Lead Baby John Waite may have been the very first male rocker I can remember wanting to do, which made the personal note that he sent me in the '90s all the more exciting. (Click here to find out why he wrote to me.) One of my favorite things about this No. 13 hit is how he sings off melody on the chorus (he was the first white guy I ever heard do that), which, of course, is now a much-used R&B tactic by every female singer with a drop of soul, from Christina Aguilera to Mary J. Blige.

15 (7+8) More Reasons Why I Love Music from 1978 (Minus country, which would need a blog post of its own)

"Night Fever" Bee Gees
"Take a Chance on Me" ABBA
"If I Can't Have You" Yvonne Elliman I used to get into arguments with my best friend in sixth grade because he insisted that Andy Gibb was singing what was by then already a golden oldie.

"MacArthur Park" Donna Summer
"Still the Same" Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band
"Baker Street" Gerry Rafferty Featuring the best sax solo ever.

"Chip Away the Stone" Aerosmith
"Being Boiled" Human League
"Hong Kong Garden" Siouxsie and the Banshees Naturally, I wasn't into Siouxsie yet in 1978, but how cool would that have made me?

"It's a Heartache" Bonnie Tyler
"Our Love" Natalie Cole
"Running on Empty" Jackson Browne '80s babies who know him best from "Somebody's Baby" and "Lawyers in Love" don't even know.

"Take Me I'm Yours" Squeeze
"Killing an Arab" The Cure
"Wuthering Heights" Kate Bush She was only 18 when she wrote her debut single, which proves that teens are capable of so much more than Justin Bieber might lead you to believe.

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