My pick for the fizziest power pop album ever made. The home-recorded guitar buzz even gives the cozy impression of a warm and constant carbon dioxide “fffffffff” across these fifteen catchy melodies. The group recorded it themselves as a demo—then they just released it as is—and each track is pure melody adorned only with the barest, ghostly living room production. It’s a uniquely spectral record, a little hook-filled cry in the night. Everyone notices its odd sound. Today, roughly 275,000 homemade albums come out each year, but in 1978 there wasn’t much else that sounded like this. Today, it feels timeless. It’s also consistently good. I can’t pick favorite songs off this any more than I can pick which M&M was the best out of the bag, but I’ve thrown “Fatal” onto a few mixes due its great percussion. —Jason
For the longest time I could never see what it was that got people going about Tom Tom Club. Being a staunch proponent of “literate” music, the whole thing seemed, well, stupid. Then I saw the critical flaw in my thinking was OVER-thinking – trying to assess it on the same terms you’d assess Talking Heads, King Crimson, or any of the more deliberate art music of the period. In a way, Tom Tom Club were the flip side of Talking Heads anxiety-funk – the same stiff white people trying to loosen up, look at the bright side, and just HAVE FUN.
The stylistic framework of their debut doesn’t stray terribly far from the ethno-world-groove their main band had been gradually working itself into, but it went even further afield from the verse/chorus/verse guitar pop formula. Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth’s sinewy 4-on-the-floor bedrock kept the limbo line moving from the beach to the discotheque, inadvertently creating what would be a MASSIVE club record to this day in the process. The unrelenting grooves and party vibe here closely echo what was bubbling under the surface in New York’s still nascent hiphop scene, locking step with the formative moves of Grandmaster Flash and Sugarhill Gang, but with lyrical concerns even (and especially) a pre-schooler could relate to (maybe not the part about going insane on cocaine). Under it all remains a playful experimentation that reflects the era’s spirit of transition and musical discovery, a palpable excitement that would hold up and get bodies moving in any era. —Jonathan Treneff
What a difference a year can make! Released only 11 months after the rather straightforward post-punk of Three Imaginary Boys, Robert Smith and company completely reinvent their sound and deliver one of the defining albums of the gothic rock movement. The songs here are bare and carefully measured, with little trace of the distorted wall-of-sound that would dominate later efforts like Pornography. Where Seventeen Seconds is very similar to those later releases is via the somber lyrics and the vocal delivery itself, which routinely take a backseat to the arrangements and rarely structures itself into a verse/chorus format. So if you enjoy the atmospheric slow-building side of the Cure, you’ll probably love this album. I personally consider it to be among the best in the Cure discography, rivaling the likes of Faith and Disintegration.
Despite a similar musical approach as Faith and Pornography, I find far more standout tunes on Seventeen Seconds. The entire back half of the album is nearly flawless. “A Forest” is particularly effective, mixing a haunting ambience with an almost Krautrock-esque driving groove. “Seventeen Seconds” is another personal favorite, although it does feel slightly underdeveloped at ~4 minutes. Gothic rock fans will also undoubtedly adore “Secrets”, “In Your House”, and “At Night”, while “M” should placate listeners starved for a slightly catchier and more upbeat melody. All things considered, one of the finest albums of the early-80’s. —Paul
Here’s an album waiting for some serious revaluation. The Hunter features several tracks of sheer classic quality, accompanied by lesser ones that still have, without exception, something remarkable to offer – a thing not always achieved by today’s acclaimed albums. “Orchid Club”, “Dragonfly” and “The Beast” are among the most interesting Blondie ever created, experimenting with hypnotic beats and unconventional song structures, hinting – along with “Fade Away and Radiate” from Parallel Lines – toward a parallel-world instance of Blondie as a trancey ambient-techno unit. “Island of Lost Souls” is not a rehash of “Tide Is High”, as some would imply. It’s arguably a better song, with a livelier tune and interesting lyrics. “English Boys” is a beautiful anthem honouring the hoisted flag of Pop Music. “War Child”: a fierce electro-disco with stabs of percussion and wind instruments – again, a faultless track. “For Your Eyes Only”: a cunning stylistic amalgam that could fit nicely among Parallel Lines’ reinventions of ’60s pop. “The Hunter Gets Captured…”, while anticipating Debbie Harry’s future work as a jazz singer, rounds off the record nicely, flashing a light on its undercurrent themes of life as adventure / race / bush warfare. —Redux
The Go-Go’s’ 1981 debut LP Beauty and the Beat is as aptly titled as it is underrated. Few shiny power pop records are as dark as this one. The record is known primarily for its two big-beat hits “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat,” two of the early 1980s’ greatest songs. The rest of the album, though, with few exceptions, is much different. After the Shangri-Las’ sounding “How Much More,” Side One takes a darker turn, focusing on the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles nightlife. As such, “Tonite,” “Lust to Love,” and “This Town” succinctly capture the exhaustion of being a scenester and the psychological toll it can take, especially in the superficial world of Hollywood. This tone is maintained on Side Two with “Fading Fast” and “Automatic,” probably the two most morose tracks on the record. From there on out, they return to catchy, bubbly pop in the form of “You Can’t Walk in Your Sleep” and the irresistible closer “Can’t Stop the World.” The reputation of Beauty and the Beat is dampened to a certain extent by outside forces, like the decline in the quality of the Go-Go’s’ music after this album, Belinda Carlisle’s weak solo career, and Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, which articulates these themes in a far more gritty, blunt manner. Nevertheless, Beauty and the Beat should not be slept on, and is a great early 80s’ power pop record. —Yerblues
A great forgotten 1981 album from the Can keyboardist, Irmin Schmidt. Delicate synth passages a few sudden astonishing gypsy disco stomps. Slightly camp, but in a good way. Sometimes sci-fi creepy, like watching Tron after eating Nutmeg. Irmin’s album does not overstate itself or outstay its welcome. It cheers me up with happy tunes. —TheGreatCurve
David J played bass, wrote songs, and occasionally sang for both Bauhaus and Love and Rockets. He also worked briefly with Jazz Butcher. Since most of his early solo work was recorded more than twenty years ago for the long-defunct Glass label, it is no surprise that it tends to be both unknown and underestimated.
Unlike his uneven debut, “Etiquette of Violence”, which sounded a lot like the final Bauhaus album, “Crocodile Tears and the Velvet Cosh” is a back-to-basics, acoustic set with thoughtful lyrics and graceful songs that fit together cohesively. Particular selections reminds me of the tracks he would contribute to Love and Rockets’ “Earth Sun Moon” a few years later, but–believe it or not–this material is even stronger. Bottom line: if you own just one album by David J, this should be it. —Thomas
It’s remarkable how well this music holds up for me. Decades after “punk” happened this is still relevant, exciting, and simply a joy to listen to. Must have something to do with the excellent songwriting throughout – it took years for it to sink in just how great a song “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” is because I was so enamored of the rush and roar of the rest of the record (plus the ace cover of “Police and Thieves”) and if that rush still holds strong, the songs that didn’t grab me initially have only gotten better over time. But really there are hardly any songs here that didn’t grab me by the throat right from the get-go – the spit out vocal and jagged guitar riff of “Clash City Rockers,” the great lyric on “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.,” the amazing less-than-two-minutes of “White Riot,” their other ace cover (“I Fought the Law”) – this record just don’t let up. Every substitution from the U.K. version constitutes an improvement even if the two versions of “White Riot” are equally convincing. This is as good as that thing called “punk” ever gets, got, or will get. A masterpiece – and with a great, iconic cover to boot. —Patrick
Eyeless In Gaza created one of the best ambient albums of the time with “Pale Hands I Loved So Well”, though it wouldn’t do it justice to call it just an ambient album. Their instrumental vignettes were plunged in a spiritual fervor, and had the quality of fragile bitterwseet contemplations or of metaphysical longing.
“Tall And White Nettles” combines gentle guitar strumming, found sounds and eerie female vocals to great effect. The chamber music of “Blue Distance” is built around mysterious organ-drones, piano ripples, and imperceptible chanting. The mystical dance “Sheer Cliffs”, which is half-gypsy and half-Indian, is truly a magical moment. “Falling Leaf/ Fading Flower” is a concerto for brass wails and gentle tones, part free-jazz and part electronic-experiment. “Lies Of Love” is another numinous dance, eventually expanding in a mist of metallic percussion, longing voices and Middle-Eastern brass. Beautiful. “To Ellen” is possibly the most transcendental moment here; a spectral hymn of haunted organs and sublime vocals by a siren. “Pale Saints” is a fusion of free-jazz and musique concrete. “Letters To She” is an ecclesiastical chant combined with subsonic drones and unsettling electronic effects, culminating in hysterical celestial voices and orchestral ultrasonic frequencies, before finally settling for a pensive tone. This is the soundtrack to man’s reincarnation as pure energy in outer space. In comparison, “Light Sliding” sounds timid and shy, though still deployed like a philosophical reminiscence. Then “Big Clipper Ship” is yet another stunning eclectic moment, partly kosmische, partly European-folk, partly chamber, partly ethereal, partly exotica percussion, partly militant march, and played in their usual recondite way. A fantastic ending to a fantastic album. —Ily
Dance is the first of Gary’s albums to divide his fanbase. Several other Numan LPs had a similar effect, including the jazz-inspired Warriors and the cinematic and over-the-top Berserker. Dance is an album that’s easy to hate on first listen due to its radical differences from earlier efforts Telekon and The Pleasure Principle; however, that is its biggest merit in my eyes. If an artist can consciously change their style and still produce an excellent album, that artist is good. And Gary Numan proved that to me with Dance.
The album immediately rejects typical album track sequence, kicking off with a nine-minute minimalist masterpiece that feels a fraction of its length, Slowcar to China. Japan’s Mick Karn features heavily on this track, his liquid-like fretless bass flowing free and easy over the drum machine backing and airy synths. The best is yet to come though, as a quiet drum machine signals the beginning of Cry, the Clock Said, a sublime minimalist ballad that clocks around at ten minutes long. I would even go so far as to call this masterpiece Gary Numan’s best ballad, perhaps matched only by The Pleasure Principle’s Complex. It builds up atmosphere at a leisurely pace, introducing airy, twinkly synths that whisper over the beat. Gary finally begins to sing five minutes in. The song is ambient, atmospheric and beautiful. The lyrics here are some of Gary’s best. They’re extremely different from the machine/sci-fi themes of loneliness and isolation seen in Gary’s earlier work, and it’s a welcome change. They’re by no means jollier though, Gary still sounds miserable. He creates an effective image of black-and-white streets, cafes, prostitutes, rustling newspapers and devious women. This provokes some of his most romantic lyrical moments (Cry, the Clock Said), along with his most cynical, tongue-in-cheek and misogynistic (She’s Got Claws).
Dance, simply put, is an essential purchase, a brilliant piece of avant-garde experimentation. It might not be conventional, it might not be immediate, it might have been commercially less successful due to its experimental style, but it’s possibly the most indispensable of all of Gary’s album, the one that proved that he was not just a one trick pony. Truly exquisite. —Dylan
Here Kate Bush graduates from quirky teenage musical prodigy to full-fledged artiste. I think it speaks volumes about this strange and wonderful album that the lead-off single was the wonderfully un-commercial “Sat in Your Lap,” a heady stew of thundering Burundi drums, horn punctuations, and Kate wailing away like a madwoman on the nature of knowledge. EMI Records execs probably wet their pants when they heard it! In fact, I’m surprised this album got a major-label release at all, at least in this form!
Even the more “normal” songs on this release (“There Goes a Tenner,” the jaunty “Suspended in Gaffa,” the Celtic folk-lilting of “Night of the Swallow”) have a certain something that renders them deeply “odd.” Or perhaps its just the proximity of the other songs that’s colouring my perception: witness “Leave It Open” with its Chipmunk backing vocals or “Get Out of My House” with its angry ranting and donkey braying. This is almost Kate’s version of John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, her own personal primal-scream therapy swathed in digital electronics as a sort of purging of her early precocious piano-maiden persona. This is the next step beyond Nina Hagen’s West German albums, and is one of the most eye-popping musical statements [of all-time]. A vital release. —Progbear
Including members of DC-hardcore originators Minor Threat and Rites of Spring, Fugazi achieve an inspired blend of punk fury, hard rock riffs, and deft instrumental interplay coupled to righteous lyrical content on this, their seven song debut EP. The songs’ big, chant-along choruses (see fan favorite “Waiting Room”) are infectious, the bobbing rhythms of bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty pointed and propulsive, while providing a fluid center around which guitarist Ian MacKaye unleashes razor sharp scrapes and howls from his SG. On this release, MacKaye swaps vocals with Guy Picciotto (not yet playing guitar), giving the band two distinctly different yet equally passionate frontmen. Favorites here include the aforementioned “Waiting Room,” reggae inspired “Suggestion,” and driving “Bulldog Front.” —Ben