Rock ‘n’ roll was fighting for its life in 1978. In addition to the usual pop and R&B songs battling for listeners’ ears, both punk and disco were making strong cases for rock’s irrelevance. With so many of the music’s key artists approaching 40 (whatever happened to that whole “Hope I die before I get old” mentality?), it seemed like way too many of them were banking on their past glories to get through this latest onslaught. So it was up to the new generation to keep kicking and screaming. Almost half of the records on our list of the Top 10 Albums From 1978 are either first or second LPs. And only two come from bands that ruled the airwaves only a decade before. This what rock ‘n’ roll sounded like at the end of the decade.
The Who Who Are You
The original band’s final album occasionally sounds like a last gasp. Coming three long years after its predecessor (an eternity back in the ’70s, when artists released new records every year), ‘Who Are You’ pushes forward but often with minimal energy. Still, John Entwistle’s three songs are among his best, and that killer title track ranks among the group’s all-time greatest singles.
Listen to: ‘Who Are You’
Cheap Trick Heaven Tonight
Sandwiched between Cheap Trick’s best record, ‘In Color,’ and their breakthrough live album, ‘Heaven Tonight’ captures a band at the brink of stardom. The riffs are big and plentiful; the playing is dynamic throughout. And the songs — especially the anthem-sized ‘Surrender’ — ring with power-pop brightness and raging confidence.
Listen to: ‘Surrender’
Warren Zevon Excitable Boy
Zevon’s breakthrough album is filled with the same sharp songwriting and expertly played L.A. rock that made his 1976 self-titled LP a hit with insiders. It’s just sharper and better played here. And the songs — ‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner,’ ‘Werewolves of London,’ ‘Lawyers, Guns and Money’ — make ‘Excitable Boy’ a veritable greatest hits.
Listen to: ‘Werewolves of London’
Billy Joel 52nd Street
Joel got tougher and jazzier on his follow-up to 1977’s mega-selling ‘The Stranger,’ which finally made him a star after five stiff albums. ’52nd Street’ takes a more street-savvy approach to the music, boosting it with gritty guitars and lonesome horns. It’s also the most meticulously produced record on our list of the Top 10 Albums From 1978.
Listen to: ‘Big Shot’
Police Outlandos d’Amour
Nobody was really sure how to label the Police’s debut album when it came out in 1978. Was it punk? New Wave? Reggae? Rock? It was a little of each, with a sprinkle of something that belonged totally to them thrown in there too. The trio played like a prog-rock group, laying down complicated grooves with expert timing. But they also shoved back like snotty punks whose only opinion they valued was their own.
Listen to: ‘Roxanne’
Talking Heads More Songs About Buildings and Food
Like the Police (see No. 6 on our list of the Top 10 Albums From 1978), Talking Heads were somewhere between punk, New Wave and rock. But they were definitely artsier and tighter tied to the post-punk scene than Sting’s band. Their second album expands even more, topping out with their funky Top 40 cover of Al Green’s ‘Take Me to the River,’ a sign of things to come.
Listen to: ‘Take Me to the River’
Here we go again (see Nos. 5 and 6 on our list of the Top 10 Albums From 1978). What kind of music exactly were the Cars playing? Many of the songs on their debut album are fueled by fat, springy keyboards that don’t sound all that rock ‘n’ roll. But the riffs come from classic rock sources. Either way, it’s a great record.
Listen to: ‘Just What I Needed’
First and foremost, Van Halen’s debut album introduced the world to the most innovative and exciting guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. But Eddie Van Halen’s wicked guitar lines wouldn’t carry nearly as much weight without his equally adept bandmates offering support. From the monster rhythm section to David Lee Roth’s oily rock-star huckster poses, ‘Van Halen’ brims with heavy.
Listen to: ‘Runnin’ With the Devil’
Rolling Stones Some Girls
Rebounding after a few lackluster albums, the Stones injected ‘Some Girls’ with healthy doses of their music’s main competition. Disco and punk grooves roll throughout the record, giving the band the shot of kick-ass it needed after resting (and getting fat and lazy) on all those World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band laurels.
Listen to: ‘Miss You’
Bruce Springsteen Darkness on the Edge of Town
‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’
Springsteen waited three years to release the follow-up to his breakthrough ‘Born to Run’ album. And it’s a monumental return, a continuation of the story he started on ‘Born to Run.’ Only now, the hope is gone, and the dreams are crushed. Springsteen’s characters walk through a wasteland of despair. ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ is angry, soulful, drained and ultimately resigned to the fact that its fate rests somewhere between hell and purgatory.
Listen to: Badlands
by Michael Gallucci
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