1978: I Hated You; I Loved You, Too

It’s the golden age of New Wave, from heavy hitters like Blondie (“Picture This”, while not a US hit encapsulates everything great about them) and Elvis Costello to cult artists such as Nick Lowe (a year away from his only US hit) and Talking Heads (opted for their elegiac single rather than the obvious one from that year) and a few true weirdos (XTC, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Devo (whose chaotic Stones cover is the very definition of smashing “post” and “punk” together.))

Still, the above selections comprise but a small portion of what the year had to offer—you can make ’78 look especially cool by spotlighting The Undertones, The Ramones, even a reformed Walker Brothers (with the wondrous, Bowie-aping “Nite Flights”), but it’s not the whole story. Far more telling is Olivia Newton-John, the only artist who appears more than once here with the John Travolta duet “You’re The One That I Want” (honestly the only thing I love about Grease) and her late-in-the-year, lesser-remembered smash “A Little More Love”, which nearly rivals ABBA (don’t worry, they’re here too) in ultra-catchy power-rock shlock.

Actually, let’s talk about schlock (some might alternately describe it as “trash”.) I suppose I’m more susceptible to it from this period for it would make up a notable portion of the first songs I’d remember hearing on the radio in the immediate years to come. The epic sax solos of “Baker Street” and “Time Passages”, Michael McDonald’s inimitable backing vocals on “You Belong To Me”, the faux-exotic, extra-cheese samba that is “Copacabana”—all of them talismans from my early childhood, none of them at odds of ever remotely seeming hip (at least until Yacht Rock became a recognized, categorized thing in the 2000s).

Disco only further plays into this: sure, one can unironically praise the crisp, gleaming funk of “Dance With Me” or lush elegance of “I Want Your Love” or unstoppable drive of “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”; however, one then must also consider “I Love The Nightlife (Disco ‘Round)” where Alicia Bridges’ campy intonation surely inspired generations of drag performers or (speaking of camp) Boney M’s inexplicable “Rasputin” (aka, “Russia’s Greatest Love Machine”), which threads both the ridiculous and the sublime more seamlessly than even Santa Esmeralda did in ’77 or Disco Tex and His Sex-O-Lettes in ’75.

As usual, Kate Bush is an entirely different matter. If you listen to her debut single “Wuthering Heights” (not the ’86 remake on The Whole Story, my own introduction to it) or watch the music video above, you might be tempted to lump her in with all that schlock (and camp) and call it a day. But no, there’s something present within the song, within her essence, even, that transcends the very notion of schlock—an ingenuity projecting sincerity even in the most theatrical of presentations. It blows my mind that this was a four-weeks-at-number-one-hit in the UK and yet, it makes total sense that so many listeners could instantly give themselves over to it. Bush’s salvo is one-of-a-kind in how it simultaneously looks forwards and backwards, utilizing elements from the past to formulate what still feels like a whole new language.

My 1978 playlist on Spotify:

1976: It’s The Best I Can Do

With no firsthand memory of it (being one year old at the time), for me, 1976 will always evoke the US Bicentennial, the ascendancy of disco and Stevie Wonder’s monumental (if not best*) album Songs In The Key Of Life, whose still-dazzling first single leads off this year’s playlist. Another prime ’76 totem remains Wings’ sublimely daft “Silly Love Songs”, over which I’ve chosen its follow-up hit “Let ‘Em In” if only for its sheer weirdness—the precise moment Paul truly began making pop directly geared towards potheads (give or take a “Hi, Hi, Hi”.)

Rather than blending everything together like a fruit salad (or, this being the ‘70s, a health shake laced with alfalfa sprouts and some ‘ludes because why not), I chose to get a few extended grooves goin’. Thus, the first dozen tracks gradually shift from funk to disco, finding common ground between Boz Scaggs and ELO, or squeaky-clean Tavares and real-life porn actress Andrea True. Moroder’s Euro-sleaze version of a Moody Blues (!) song isn’t that far removed from the Bee Gees’ banger (the one so brilliant it practically gave Saturday Night Fever a reason for existing a year later.) And of course, fellow SNF soundtrack fixture “A Fifth of Beethoven”, pure cheese that has somehow taken on a transcendent cast in recent years, thanks in no small part to its use over the opening credits of last year’s fantastic Mrs. America miniseries.

ABBA’s “Knowing Me, Knowing You” is not only peak ’76 (from Arrival, but a hit single the next year) but also the Swedish foursome’s crowning achievement (“Dancing Queen” a close second), encompassing infinite shades of heartbreak in an immaculate pop song where the cracks still show but never fully give way to chaos amidst the steady beat and melodic hooks. Not even Elton and Kiki’s impassioned duet can top it.

While disco nears its artistic summit (but doesn’t quite reach it—check back next year) with extended jams from Donna Summer, The Spinners, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and Miss Diana Ross (her best single of the ’70s), there’s also new sounds to behold: punk via The Runaways and The Ramones (albeit at their cuddliest here with “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”), new wave from Blondie and The Modern Lovers (I don’t know where else to slot the latter; Jonathan Richman is more defiant dweeb than mere punk) and the newfound resilience of their antecedents (Lou Reed, Bryan Ferry, David Bowie.) 

The lingering ennui of “Year of the Cat” by Al Stewart (the proto-Stuart Murdoch) is as good a place as any to go out on, although I debated placing The Langley Schools Music Project version of “Rhiannon” at the end: when those kids suddenly go loud at the chorus, it’s spookier than anything even Stevie Nicks could’ve come up with.

My favorite songs of 1976 on Spotify:

*Innervisions, of course.