In his book Never a Dull Moment: 1971, The Year That Rock Exploded, David Hepworth makes the argument that 1971 is the most important year in rock history. With the ridiculous number of seminal albums released that year and their enduring influence and appeal, it’s hard to argue his point, but as individuals we may have our own favorite eras or specific years of music regardless of its lasting social impact. More than likely it’s the music you were exposed to as a teen. A recent New York Times study of Spotify data concluded that the sweet spot for liking music is age 13 or 14. That’s the music that stays with you, sings to you and clings to you like a warm blanket on a chilly January’s night.
To that point, if you’re a music fan and you haven’t yet found enough ways to piss away your time, allow me to share another little rabbit hole that I’ve found myself spelunking in the past few weeks: the Wikipedia database of album releases. Just pick a year and shuffle through the release dates of your favorite records. There are plenty of great years and some months that make my heads spin. Get this: in October of 1973 alone the following records were released:
Elton John – Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Genesis – Selling England by the Pound
David Bowie – Pinups
The Who – Quadrophenia
Jackson Browne – For Everyman
That’s in one fricking MONTH. How on earth did music fans keep up? And how did they not go broke?
For some music fans, nothing will beat the output of 1967 to around 1971, and this era is still celebrated today in a big way, but for me, I’d fast forward around a decade to approximately 1978-1981, when there was still a multitude of good music coming out from the old guard plus an influx of exciting new bands like The Police, XTC, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Clash, etc. It was the best of both worlds. I was a little on the young side during the front end of this era, but ages 10-13 still fit the bell curve of the New York Times study pretty well.
If push came to shove and I had to pick one year for my desert island catalog of music, it would be 1979, the year I turned eleven. On the surface, it’s is a strange choice for me due the dearth of so many artists I admire – Jackson Browne, Rush, Genesis, Yes, Billy Joel, The Who, Steely Dan, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen – and what was unquestionably Elton John’s worst album (Victim of Love). But scratch beyond the surface and you’ll find a crazy number of amazing albums, including six that I blogged about last November/December when I highlighted 65 albums that I can’t live without:
Joe Jackson – Look Sharp
Supertramp – Breakfast in America
Off Broadway – On
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk
Rickie Lee Jones – her self-titled debut
Pink Floyd – The Wall
If that were the extent of releases from 1979, it would still be a good year, but there are multiple layers of great music that graced the airwaves during those twelve months.
You get Cheap Trick’s best album, Dream Police, ditto for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with Damn the Torpedoes, The Police’s peak (or maybe second best to Synchronicity?) with Regatta de Blanc, and my favorite album by Roxy Music – Manifesto. And though Van Halen, Toto and The Cars made an even bigger splash the previous year with their debut albums, all of their sophomore efforts – Van Halen II, Hydra, and Candy-O, respectively – are solid releases.
Then you get one of Elvis Costello’s best albums in Armed Forces, perhaps Graham Parson and the Rumour’s best in Squeezing out Sparks, Nick Lowe’s Labour of Lust, and then another Joe Jackson album – I’m the Man – just a few months after his debut. You want more punk and new wave? Plenty of options here, including The Clash’s classic London Calling, Life in a Day by Simple Minds, Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Get the Knock, the B-52’s debut, Fear of Music by The Talking Heads, Blondie’s Eat to the Beat and The Human League’s Reproduction. Nice!
You like soul and funk? This isn’t my wheelhouse, but for crying out loud, in 1979 you had releases by Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder, Rufus, Prince, Barry White, Kool & the Gang, Aretha Franklin, Commodores, Chic, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Sister Sledge.
What if you’re in a classic rock mood? Well, Journey’s Evolution is pretty damn good, James Taylor’s Flags has some wonderful tracks, Kansas’s Monolith is worth a listen as is Styx’s Cornerstone, Foreigner’s Head Games, The Long Run by The Eagles, Aerosmith’s Night in the Ruts (not a great album, but put the needle on “Three Mile Smile” sometime and tell me it isn’t awesome), and albums by bands I don’t personally get into, but you might: Ted Nugent, KISS, Whitesnake, AC/DC, etc.
And you even get Led Zeppelin’s last studio release with In Through the Outdoor and among my favorite Wing albums, Back to the Egg. The list goes on and on. While I wouldn’t be entirely satisfied having to live with only one year’s worth of music, there could be worse fates than having to feast exclusively on albums from 1979.
What’s missing is prog rock. By the late 70s punk rock had wormed its way into the popular music scene, and long-winded bands appeared to have spent 1979 rethinking things. So if I was allowed to sneak one more year into my arsenal of awesome music, I’d go straight into 1980, when some of the obvious omissions of 1979 could be rectified with great releases by Rush, Genesis and Yes, plus fantastic albums by Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Jackson Browne, Queen, Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones and Al Stewart, not to mention debuts by U2, The Pretenders, The Psychedelic Furs, INXS and Echo & the Bunnymen, plus a bunch of yacht rock that’s fun to listen to from time to time. The list goes on and on.
For me, this is the sweet spot for music.
But why don’t you spend the next several weeks ignoring your job and family and come up with your own favorite year by poking around Wikipedia for a while? It won’t garner you a paycheck or unconditional love, but it’s a helluva lot of fun.